Mar 14, 2014
Ellen Garrison on ‘All the Sad Young Literary Men’
Posted on Jul 10, 2008
This kind of knee-jerk reversion to caricature is all the more frustrating because it is so clearly a mark of laziness, not stupidity. Gessen is fully capable of illuminating the interior lives of even tertiary characters in a few sentences, as he demonstrates in the best of these, “Jenin,” which follows Sam to the occupied territories in Israel. There he meets Akhmed, a young Palestinian teacher who is happy to give this dazed American a chance to see some real Israeli tanks, though neither he nor his friends seem to realize that Sam is Jewish. Sam’s confused politics and his hazy sense of himself are jolted awake by the banal realities of ethnic hatred, and his self-consciousness as a Jew among Arabs sharpens so much that when at last he does reveal himself to Akhmed, he fully expects an angry confrontation to follow. Instead, in a few honest and movingly written paragraphs Akhmed becomes sympathetically human, instead of a symbol: “Akhmed himself would never hurt anyone. In another life he would have been a professor, or a teacher—why, he was a teacher in this life. Perhaps what Sam meant was that in another life Akhmed would have been a Jewish teacher.” That recognition of kinship is what allows Sam to figure out who he is, while in the hands of a lesser writer his self-discovery would inevitably come at the expense of some noble or despicable other.
It seems bizarre then that the same courtesy is not extended to the love interests. There is no moment of recognition for the women that matches the tenderness and humor that Sam and Akhmed share. Instead they function as little more than plot devices, shaking their heads over their boyfriends’ antics, building up equity and generating guilt. Feckless Sam is dumped by women exasperated by his obsessions, and Keith moves from one morose and disappointed girlfriend to another until he is rescued by 22-year-old Gwyn, the most faceless girl of all. Poor Mark is plagued for a time by women his own age: Captivating Celeste refuses to commit to him because, like “every woman,” she has a boyfriend; in despair he settles for a fellow grad student who wears too much makeup and won’t sleep with him till he commits—and then Celeste calls! It’s like “Friends” would be if everyone had moved to Syracuse and run out of Zoloft. Somehow our hero pulls through and winds up with Celeste in Brooklyn, but there he discovers that she is no longer young, no longer happy. He isn’t either, of course, but it looks better on him. Gessen doesn’t argue this truism of post-Bradshaw philosophy, but he shines a new and penetrating light on just how difficult it is to be a late-blooming male when the woman across the table from you is nearly 30 and sees you, “of all people,” as “her last chance at something, before she crossed into a different phase of life.” This burdensome tendency of women to rely so heavily on their menfolk to spur life-changes (“Women did not leave their men for nothing—they left them for other men”) is taken to a ludicrous extreme in the final story, when sweet young Gwyn is (spoiler!) impregnated by Keith, and tells him “we’ll do whatever you want.” Keith decides to keep the baby, in his boyishly idealistic way, “in order to ensure a permanent left majority.” After all their political struggles and onanistic philosophizing, the boys seem to shrivel up at the thought of a figure more foreign than any rock-throwing radical: a complicated woman.
Keith Gessen and his cohorts are being strenuously marketed as the voice of the zeitgeist, the intellectual heirs of Mailer and Plimpton—or the highbrow version of Judd Apatow. With any luck it won’t take. He may share their self-regard and their peculiar blind spot when it comes to investigations into the human condition, but since he doesn’t have their energy, charm or humor (respectively), perhaps we won’t have to take him quite so seriously. Still, his work (and Apatow’s, as Meghan O’Rourke has pointed out in Slate) portends something ominous and annoying about this new generation of culture makers. At least Fitzgerald’s girls were as crazy and depressed as his boys; these sad young men are reaching all the way back to John Ruskin and his “angel in the house,” that paragon of virtue and domesticity who was doomed to show up the interesting, exciting lives of men, in order to make some kind of point about modern adulthood. At best it’s a sign that literary imagination is a rare and elusive thing not bound by the rules of evolution; at worst, it suggests that we are now living in a culture that applies the rule of scarcity to self-realization: Its worth to some is dependent on its unavailability to others.
Ellen Garrison, a former associate editor at Viking, is a freelance editor living in Brooklyn.
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