September 25, 2008

All the Sad, Young, Literary Men

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I love summers because I can read for fun; this summer, most of what I read sucked. All sucked, that is, but one: Keith Gessen’s jewel of a debut, All the Sad, Young, Literary Men.
The title implies an obvious ennui, a weight, and perhaps, a certain self-importance. The title, yes catching, seems to say: I am Chekhov with a twist of Dave Eggers; I am Russian lit-er-a-ture with a hint of American modern sparseness.
And yet Keith Gessen’s first novel opens with the rhythm of The Things They Carried and the authorial insight of one sadly aware of all those sad (young) writers who came before him … yet in a voice that is utterly new.
The novel is really three interweaving stories about three young men who tangentially know each other — Mark, Sam and Keith, all highly educated Harvard grads, all idealistic in their own Icarus-like ways.
It begins in 1998 with Mark, who lives with his Russian girlfriend Sasha in Queens and saves money in that poor post-college romantic way that these days we joke about but don’t really understand. Sam is trying to write the great Zionist novel, but doesn’t know what to write about; concurrently he juggles a relationship with an irreligious Israeli girl and his American girlfriend.
And then there’s Keith. Gessen gives Keith his own name, and his own voice — the only first-person narrative woven throughout the story (which I’m sure is intended as some form of experimental autobiography). Keith, the most self-flagellating of the three, is living with his girlfriend of two years and writing about Al Gore. Their stories continue nonlinearly, running back and forth between future reminiscence and earlier events, each becoming more disillusioned with themselves, their relationships and the world.
Sam, Keith and Mark dance around each other’s periphery — so that whether Literary Men is actually a novel or a collection of interlinking stories is debatable. Behind their desperate, failed and often self-sabotaged relationships is an awareness of what the world was in 1998; America, Russia and Israel are characters too — places of dissapointment, lust or idealization for all three.
I’d like to say that I identified with the novel, but I think it’s more that we’d — ok, I’d — like to. Unfortunately in 1998, Gessen’s characters are in their 20s, while most of us were still maneuvering the playground. Mark, Sam and Keith’s attention is turned back to their college days and their pasts, while ours is turned nervously forwards. There is no question that the world is different; in fact, Gessen seems to be arguing that his characters aged from 1998 to 2008 in the same way we all did — we being, in this case, a liberal, educated American public not sure of where our futures went.
And yet, the novel ends with Keith hilmself warily hopeful, which I think we all are. The cover says it: one man, holding up a gigantic book like he’s carrying the world on his back — and I think that Gessen, and his characters, in some ways, feel that they are as well.