All the Sad Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen
Reviewed by Joyce Carol Oates
New York Review of Books
Something in reference to a man who subscribes to an agency for "clippings," to send him everything "that appears about him" -- and finds that nothing ever appears. That he never receives anything.
? Henry James, Notebooks
quoted in All the Sad Young Literary Men
When F. Scott Fitzgerald published the mostly slick, romantic-sentimental short story collection All the Sad Young Men in 1926, he was only thirty years old and yet, in the accelerated and vertiginous atmosphere of the Jazz Age, after his early, giddy success at the age of twenty-three, a Princeton dropout who'd written the best-selling This Side of Paradise (1920), he had already begun the lengthy, fractured "second act" of his career -- an interlude of fourteen years during which, while drinking heavily and living carelessly, Fitzgerald continued to write and to publish such powerful works of fiction as Tender Is the Night (1934), the short stories http://www.powells.com/s?kw=Babylon+Revisited+fitzgerald&x=0&y=0">Babylon Revisited (1931) and "The Swimmers" (1936), and the highly influential memoir The Crack-Up (1936), before his premature death at the age of forty-four, in 1940.
In 1925, he'd published The Great Gatsby, now a "classic" of our literature and at that time a clear expression of the young author's disillusion with his very success. The nine stories of All the Sad Young Men contain portraits, widely varying in quality and originality, of young men whose "winter dreams" of religious belief, the love of beautiful women, and the pursuit of wealth have collapsed about them. These "sad young men" -- self-portraits at times verging upon self-caricaturesâ€”are naively inexperienced, immature, and foolish in their expectations. We are likely to side with Ernest Hemingway, who'd rebuked Fitzgerald's romantic fascination with the rich ("[They] are very different from you and me" begins The Rich Boy) in a famous passage in The Snows of Kilimanjaro:
The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, "The rich are very different from you and me." And how someone had said to Julian, "Yes, they have more money."
By contrast, the "sad young literary men" of Keith Gessen's first novel will not strike most readers as unusually naive or foolish in their expectations, especially as 1990s Ivy League graduates with a more than ordinary interest in contemporary history and politics, who find themselves, soon after graduation, in an America whose presidency has been brazenly hijacked by reactionary politicians:
...I was ashamed of us. Nothing had gone as we had hoped. We might still recover -- I might still make a wonderful career in liberal punditry, [a Harvard classmate, the daughter of the outgoing Vice-President] could still rejuvenate the Democratic Party -- but the success we'd glimpsed, that we had smelled with our noses...was denied us. We might still make it but it would not be for many years, and we would not be so beautiful as we were, and our teeth would not be so bright -- and the country, by then, would be in serious world-historical shit.
Unlike Fitzgerald's young men, bedazzled by the very pretty but narcissistic flapper-daughters of the rich like Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby ("Her voice is full of money," Gatsby observes admiringly), Gessen's young men are attracted to young women of far more intellectual substance and promise. Like Sasha, the Russian-born wife of a graduate student in Russian studies named Mark, these young women are never presented as anything less than the equals of their male lovers and companions:
...Mark and Sasha and their friends worried about history and themselves. They read and listened and wrote and argued. What would happen to them? Were they good enough, strong enough, smart enough? Were they hard enough, mean enough, did they believe in themselves enough, and would they stick together when push came to shove, would they tell the truth despite all consequences? They were right about Al-Shifa; they were right about the settlements. About Kosovo they were right and wrong. But what if they were missing it?
Though Fitzgerald himself was as hopeful of creating serious, enduring works of fiction as he was of establishing a brilliantly showy marriage with the manic debutante Zelda Sayre, he created no sympathetic portraits of ambitious and gifted young literary men remotely like himself: his best-known narrator, Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, is quick to identify himself as "in the bond business" -- presumably a more appropriate trade for a virile young man than the trade Fitzgerald was in. But Gessen's sad young literary men are indeed literary, intellectual, and politically driven, as if nothing else could matter more to them than attempting to alter the consciousness of their time, like the intrepid Sam, the son of radical Jewish secularists, whose obsession is to "write the great Zionist novel...to disentangle the mess of confusion, misinformation, tribal emotionalism, and political opportunism that characterized the Jewish-American attitude toward Israel":
Sam didn't have a chance. It had taken courage -- not talent, not wit, and certainly not foresight -- to refuse a regular job after school, to do nothing but read about Israel and worry and argue while his classmates found work at Fidelity or HyperCapital or joined rock bands or traveled the world. Sam knew he had more courage -- they were taller, more attractive, they had better table manners and better skin, but he'd gotten all the balls.
It took balls to do what he did because if he failedâ€”and he had failedâ€”he'd end up where he was [working as a temp at Fidelity].... He hadn't accomplished the things of which he'd dreamed, and now he couldn't even get done the very basic things that most adults did....
Equally preoccupied with his work, and his inability to complete it, is the Russian studies graduate student Mark, who finds himself in exile in Syracuse, New York, where he is trying to finish his Ph.D. dissertation on the ill-fated Russian revolutionaries the Mensheviks; now divorced after Sasha left him, Mark distracts himself with Internet dating and pornography, and seems to become unhinged in the snow-swept wasteland of upstate New York where "it was better to stay drunk and drugged, and the Syracuseans knew it." Yet it doesn't occur to Mark simply to give up on his vast project, which finally, after years of effort, and the extraordinary ministrations of a saintly dissertation adviser at Syracuse University, he completes. (Or does he? Gessen breaks off Mark's story with teasing abruptness and ambiguity.)
It's a familiar yet still disorienting literary tactic to present a fictitious character with the name of his creator, as Gessen does with his first-person narrator, whom he calls "Keith," inviting the reader to assume, or to be mistaken in assuming, that "Keith" in some way corresponds to the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, Keith Gessen. (Though the fictitious Keith doesn't seem to have been a founding editor, in 2004, of the spirited intellectual literary journal n+1 like Keith Gessen was.) Of the three young men, Keith is both the most immediate, framing the episodic novel with his affably intimate first-person narrations, and the least clear; confined inside Keith's head, which is a maelstrom of impressions, memory fragments, and amusing nonevents in the Jerry Seinfeld tradition, we don't see him with anything like the comic sharpness with which we see his coevals Mark and Sam. This Keith is a vortex of thoughts, an optic nerve of observations, a summary or catalog rather more than a vividly realized character:
...My life was not very rock and roll. In a rock and roll life, you forgot everything and just moved on. Whereas I, if you asked, could still list all the people I've ever been friends with, and all the people I've ever loved, and all the things we did, and what they'd said. What is more I had a fellowship at a Washington think tank to write a postmortem on the 2000 election -- what had gone wrong? I was looking into it. I'm still looking into it.
Keith may be no less literary-minded than Mark or Sam, but his literary identity isn't dramatized like theirs: he isn't so foolish as they are, and consequently he isn't so endearing. Yet it's in Keith's "Uncle Mischa" section that we encounter a family background as in a more conventional novel, and in this section that the novel's most poignant single image is presented when Keith visits his widower-father in Clarksville, Maryland, at the age of twenty-seven, and takes us into a "little library" in the family house,
filled with my mother's old books on Russian literature, most of them put out by the Ã©migrÃ© presses -- Ardis, L'Age d'Homme, YMCA-Presse. Like everyone else, she'd been forced into [computer] programming, Russians like some poorly dressed gang of programming mercenaries, but her old books from her old life had stayed.... The arguments no longer made much sense -- over and over that Lenin was Stalin, that Brezhnev was Stalin, that if you didn't think so, you were Stalin -- but the type, so clumsy and cheap, not mass produced and thin, like the Soviet books on the shelves, but as if an individual had gone into the DNA of every letter and somehow made it look awkward on the page, each letter in a different way -- the type spoke of a world in which publishing these words and getting them to readers was the most important thing imaginable. I did not long for this world; I knew very well how much it cost; and I did not feel rebuked by it. But having been lived in once, by people I knew, and in these books -- the world remained.
Here was this library, transported from Moscow to Clarksville and finally down I-97 to the water.
Nostalgic, elegiac, unsentimental, and yet profoundly lyric -- such a passage allows us to know the "literary heritage" of another, to whom it can be no more than secondhand.
Beginning with its risky yet playful title, All the Sad Young Literary Men is a rueful, undramatic, mordantly funny, and frequently poignant sequence of sketch-like stories loosely organized by chronology and place and the prevailing theme of youthful literary ideals vis-Ã -vis literary accomplishment. In its seriocomic depiction of post-adolescent ennui it will remind some readers of Indecision (2005), the first novel by Benjamin Kunkel, Keith Gessen's co-editor at n+1; clearly, both young writers speak the same language, if not precisely the same dialect. Its cover art suggests a witty New Yorker cartoon: a small male figure at the very bottom of a page bearing on his back and shoulders an immense black tombstone of a book titled ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN.
Transposed to theater it would be not a conventional play in three dimensions intent upon simulating life, but an evening of linked monologues delivered with droll, deadpan humor and melancholy irony, with, perhaps, from time to time, images of historic figures projected against the back of the stage: Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Liebknecht (an assassinated German revolutionary of particular interest to Mark); to suggest contemporary, diminished times, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Monica Lewinsky (images of these three appear in the novel). The predicament of Gessen's characters, as it is likely to be the preeminent predicament of Gessen's generation, is the disparity between what one has learned of history and the possibilities of making use of that knowledge in one's life; the crushing fact that, for all one's vaunted literary and intellectual prowess, one is living in a debased postâ€“September 11 political era during an ugly war in which a small fraction of one's generation is in fact fighting overseas while, as a "literary" person, one is living an essentially sedentary and irrelevant life. (As Mark laments: "I have spent...most of my life in libraries.")
Indeed, Gessen's humor is persistently Seinfeldian, avoiding the excesses of savage comedy or satire, or anything like raging spiritual despair, for All the Sad Young Literary Men is a post-postmodernist work of fiction in which spiritual impotence is the great subtextual theme, even as sexual promiscuity is the norm. Even Mark, who has spent so much of his young life in libraries, concedes:
...The time he spent in libraries these days was mainly spent looking at naked people on the Internet. But he'd not spent -- this was the point -- a single minute on the Buck Fuck Bus.... Mark was like those stunned post-Soviet Russians during the draconian free market reforms, watching their ten-thousand-ruble lifetime savings, still active in their memories, turn overnight into fifty dollars. The Devaluation, it was called. And it hurt.
Henry James's imagined character, learning that nothing at all ever appears about him in the press, and that he has no existence in the larger world, is sure to be devastated by such a revelation, but Gessen's young twenty-first-century men make of their diminished status an eloquent sort of poetry, as in a high-culture version of Sex and the City:
We hurt one another. We go through life dressing up in new clothes and covering our true motives. We meet up lightly, we drink rosÃ© wine, and then we give each other pain. We don't want to! What we want to do, what one really wants to do is put out one's hands -- like some danger, in a trance, just put out one's hands -- and touch all the people and tell them: I'm sorry. I love you. Thanks for your e-mail. Thank you for coming to see me. Thank you. I love you. But we can't.... We do not keep each other company. We do not send each other cute text messages. Or, rather, when we do these things, we do them merely to postpone the moment when we'll push these people off, and beat forward, beat forward on our little raft, alone.
It isn't that nothing ever happens to Gessen's characters but that nothing of much significance happens to them, and this nothing-much happens continually, one might say on an hourly basis, like a nightmare Moebius strip of e-mail messages sent, received, replied to, and deleted; voice mail; Googling ("His Google was shrinking. It was part of a larger failure.... It wasn't nice"); and the Sisyphean task of finding a parking space in New York City. Nonevents happen with deadening frequency in nonplaces like Harvard ("Does it suck?" "Kind of." "Yeah, I went to Swarthmore and we were always pretty sure Harvard sucked") and Syracuse ("What's in Syracuse?" "Misery. Depopulation. College kids get mugged"); among these, the anomaly of Brown University: "...Brown gave me an unrealistic idea of what life would be like.... Marx on Tuesday, naked copulation on Thursday, and then on the weekends I'd go out with guys kind of like you." As a Harvard undergraduate, Keith is made to feel inferior to his womanizing roommate Ferdinand, who tosses about such terms as "douchebag" and "assholes" yet wins the love of Lauren, the "Vice-President's Daughter," while Keith frets over his insipid failings:
...too earnest, too ready to spill my guts in the old high school way.... As an apologizer I was a total failure.... So that a few months into my freshman year the range of women whom I had not encountered in a drunken stupor narrowed and narrowed until I was reduced to just getting drunk again and hoping someone would meet me halfway.
Gessen has captured perfectly the narcissistic ennui of privileged youth for whom self-flagellation is an art form; or, as Dave Eggers remarks in the acknowledgments to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, "The Self-Aggrandizement Disguised as Self-Flagellation as Even Higher Art Form."
At twenty-seven, Keith is still fretting, in a loftier vein of maudlin regret:
...All the people I'd loved once, or even just knew once, were scattered, never to be seen again in one place. So that all the feelings one expended, received, that one felt at the core of one's being, had turned, in the course of things, to dust.
And outside already it was growing dark.
Yet there are passages in All the Sad Young Literary Men that pulsate with genuine life, as in a teasingly roman-Ã -clef portrait of one Morris Binkel, for a while Keith's literary hero, whose mind is "ablaze":
It was his belief that American culture was corrupt; that it was filled with phonies, charlatans, morons, and rich people. Also their dupes. Binkel called for a renewal of an adversary culture.... He reserved his especial scorn for his own people, for young Jewish writers, who had once been the bravest and the most outrageous, and now were the most timid....
Unsurprisingly, when Keith becomes more closely acquainted with this heroic figure, Binkel begins to dissolve, like a Francis Bacon portrait of impotent inchoate male rage:
The man was practically a sociopath. He had been in New York so long, had ingested there so many values that he at heart despised, that he knew to be false and cruel, that, in angrily rejecting them, he felt also the extent to which he was beholden to them, and grew angrier still. He could no longer read five pages of anything without losing his temper, without clutching his chair in rage.... His anger at his era rose like vomit to his throat.
Wittily it's said of this paragon of intellectual integrity:
Morris is like American foreign policy. The only thing he knows is how to do is bomb people. But sometimes the people he bombs really deserve it.
By far the strongest section in All the Sad Young Literary Men is "Jenin," which takes the hapless Sam, who has failed to write the great Zionist epic novel, to Israel, and then to the Palestinian village of Jenin in the West Bank. So long trapped in a kind of spiritual stasis, not unlike the novel that has showcased him, Sam is astonished:
How easy it turned out to be, to get from here to there! (If you were from here. Not so much if you were from there.)
Declining to identify himself initially as Jewish, Sam befriends a number of Palestinians in his wish to "bear witness" to the effects of the occupation; he discusses with his new friends "the retreat of leftist hopes in the face of a religious revival in the Arab world"; he yearns to see an Israeli tank or two thunder into the village, so that he might be preoccupied with more than checking his e-mail. At vulnerable moments, he wonders if he has made a terrible mistake:
There were no tanks, he thought. Or maybe there were tanks but they were here for a reason. These people wanted to kill and kill; they wanted to simmer in the stew of their hatred, and wipe their hands in Jewish blood.
Sam's witness-bearing involves a suspenseful interlude that brings him in-to actual physical dangerâ€”or so it appears:
Sam couldn't help but laugh and laugh, even as he ran. There was no going back now, even though he'd go back tomorrow.... Now, at long last, his arms pumping at his sides, the tank still firing madly behind them, his chest heaving, he knew. The Palestinians were idiots. But the Israelisâ€”well, the Israelis were fuckers. And when Sam saw an idiot faced with his natural enemy, the fucker, he knew whose side he was on.
In a modest flash-forward to 2008, All the Sad Young Literary Men ends with a sudden burst of youthful optimism generated by an unexpected pregnancy and the promise of a new era heralded by the upcoming presidential election:
...There were enough of us, I thought, if we just stuck together. We would take back the White House, and the statehouses and city halls and town councils. We'd keep the Congress. And in order to ensure a permanent left majority...we'd have many left-wing babies.
A wonderfully risky ending for Gessen's novel but, as the fictitious Keith remarks, "We had to live."
It was said by Raymond Chandler that F. Scott Fitzgerald had one of the rarest qualities in all literature:
The word is charmâ€”charm as Keats would have used it.... It's a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite.
In this debut novel there is much that is charming and beguiling, and much promise; if there is not, in these candid and unpretentious pages, the old Fitzgeraldian magic, one must concede that this is not an era hospitable to literary magic.
Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel, The Falls, will be released in trade paper this June.