All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I first started reading All the Sad Young Literary Men, I thought the book was like the literary equivalent of the band Vampire Weekend--the skill is there and the artists have learned from the best, but they haven’t yet had a profound experience beyond that learning. Hence, you get shiny baubles that sparkle like there is something going on, pop songs that show off verbal dexterity and a knowledge of the rhythms of the world, but the skill is really just a distraction for cheap tales of campus life and the fall-out when the party is over.
Keith Gessen fancies himself an heir to F. Scott Fitzgerald--a conceit I wish I could declare as boldly--but Fitzgerald’s characters never had the benefit of having books like The Great Gatsby or This Side of Paradise to expose for them the fact that the American Dream is a hoax. Gessen’s children, on the other hand, have not only read Fitzgerald, but they come from families who have run on the fumes of that dream’s rotting corpse, and this new generation is content to do the same while offering the pretense that they are doing something important. When they are not. Unlike, say, Gatsby, who at least took the time to reinvent himself, or the Divers, who had the good sense to fall apart, they do nothing but procrastinate, make excuses, and demand. It’s the sense of entitlement that rankles, that they still think they deserve these things that are not there. It makes them seem, well...spoiled.
But then, thinking that through, I also wondered if I was just being too harsh. Gessen can certainly write, and maybe it’s that human failing where you judge too cruelly the thing you do yourself, because it makes you doubt your own skills. Like I don’t want to face whether or not it’s possible to argue that my characters could be just as insipid. Or, worse, that I am one of Gessen’s characters, jealous of those who are doing what I want to do and having more success. I mean, let’s face it, I always struggled with how to appropriate the All the Sad Young Men title from Fitzgerald (who took it from a jazz song, ahem) and now this guy beat me to it. (There is a reason my main character gets an edition of that 1926 Fitzgerald short story collection in The Everlasting). Typing these notes while halfway through Gessen’s book, am I just being petulant and petty?
These are all the things I was pondering halfway through All the Sad Young Literary Men, and I made these notes as an attempt to clear my mind and to read on, to try anew to connect to the three protagonists, the three sad young men. A book in three sections, each with three stories, three main characters. More a collection of short stories than an actual novel, let’s be fair, especially with the lead story having a disjointed style full of pictures and objects. Two third-person narratives (Mark and Sam), one first-person (Keith; hello, diary?), but honestly, all interchangeable, the repetition of their lives and of their plight making them seem like one personality, the way they swap interests and women and reference points like their own kind of food chain. Which could be the point, these dispassionate youth with the same problems, the same nowhere to go. Interestingly, all three of these writers choose not to write about themselves--which they could actually do were they to try, since they are so self-absorbed--but instead want to write about larger topics. Sam plans a novel about the greater Jewish experience; Mark a doctorate on a particular outsider movement in the Russian Revolution; Keith global politics. If one were to give them credit, it’s that they, in their writing, try to be a part of something that is bigger than they are, and in reality, can’t penetrate it, discover that they have been excluded from being an active participant of anything important because they are too privileged and just too aware of the importance.
Or too lazy, and so go after things they know they will never conquer rather than the old literary cliché of writing what they know, writing about themselves, and then having to declare they have nothing to say, the easy cop-out. The irony being that they are saying it right here within Gessen’s narratives, each short story ending on some kind of self-examination. They who are fictions themselves want to live out these real things as fictions. And that’s the trick really, that they are removed, that they stay removed. Write about Israel, but it’s over there, and you don’t have to risk your life. Write about the past, because it’s gone. Write about elections, but don’t run for office.
Herein lies the redemption of the book, and of the characters. In the third act, in the last three stories, the guys have to assess the reality of their surroundings, discard the illusion they have tried to maintain and actually see the world for what it is. It’s not some great concept with capital letters--American Dream--and it’s not something they can merely observe. Sam has the most profound change, going to Jewish settlements in the disputed Palestine region, discovering first-hand the sticky wicket of religious politics and that the contradictions that are within him are within everyone else. The other two don’t get as grand a closure, but that makes sense, it would be too much for them all to come crashing down on the world stage, and the book also has to reconcile its inner personal life. Gessen doesn’t spell it out, which earns him points; he ends Mark’s story, in particular, at a point of decision and only gives us a bare clue of what that is. I can’t excoriate his lazy children and then be a lazy reader myself.
In its way, then, the reading of this book was a journey equal to the one in its pages. I am not generous enough to declare this was entirely Keith Gessen’s intention--“You will hate them, and then you will not want to stop until you know what happens to them”--but I did chart a course across his narrative that was fascinating. At least to me. If Goodreads would let me, I’d give it 3 1/2 stars, not just three. Give me room to breathe in this solar system!
Odd coincidence: As I was reading the last two stories, without thinking about it, I put on the solo album of Peter Moren, him of Peter, Bjorn & John. It’s called The Last Tycoon, named for Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel, its uncompleted state serving as a metaphor for his Irving Thalberg-like character who thought movies could reinstate the illusion of the American Dream, but alas, never could, his author cut off on the road along the way.
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All text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich