May 24, 2013
Ellen Garrison on ‘All the Sad Young Literary Men’
Posted on Jul 10, 2008
What might one hope for from a novel entitled “All the Sad Young Literary Men”? Not modesty, for certain, and not subtlety. The title is a nod to that saddest and most literary of young men, F. Scott Fitzgerald (“All the Sad Young Men” was a story collection that followed up “The Great Gatsby”), which should give you some idea of the book’s opinion of itself. Perhaps it is unfair to hold Keith Gessen’s literary debut to such exalted standards, or to expect it to overwhelm any flaws with the sheer power of great writing. But given the pedigree of the author—Gessen is co-founder of the literary magazine N+1 and a translator of Russian literature—one could reasonably expect this to be a novel that, like a shortish, bespectacled guy hanging around the bar at an N+1 fundraising party, might at least be funny.
But the novel is not funny, and it is not brave. (Nor, strictly speaking, is it a novel—it’s a collection of loosely linked short stories.) Bravery might seem like an inappropriate, even anachronistic demand to make of Mark, Keith and Sam, the young men who flounder through these pages in search of themselves. They are Ivy League seekers, sons of immigrants and revolutionaries who braved everything to ensure that their boys need not. But it takes a lot of courage to write a good satire—to see it through and resist the temptation to be likable—and bravery is required of any seeker, to leave the comfort of the superego and face the world head-on. Gessen’s morose and flaccid young men, however, are content to analyze their own failings with all the earnest scrutiny of college sophomores in a writing seminar (albeit a Harvard writing seminar), grasping at their straw women in desperation.
In each of these 10 stories the young man in question attempts to unravel his complicated desires with the help of his favorite historical or political obsession (Keith finds the electoral politics of fin-de-millennium America to be a useful prism; Mark prefers the Russian revolution, Sam the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). After 211 pages of this, Mark ruefully acknowledges that “ultimately these historical parallels were of limited use in figuring out your personal life.” But even then it doesn’t stop.
The device is mildly amusing the first time you encounter it, and for most readers that will have been in a freshman comp class when they were assigned “IND AFF, or Out of Love in Sarajevo,” by Fay Weldon. That short story, beloved by English professors everywhere, is a shining example of clean writing, sharp wit that does not spare the protagonist, and a deployment of history as metaphor that neither reduces the significance of one event (in this case, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand) nor hilariously overstates the importance of the other (the dissolution of a tawdry affair). Unfortunately Gessen’s homage does not quite live up to Weldon’s original.
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