I picked up Keith Gessen’s first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, about 18 months too late. It was published in April of 2008, but I didn’t read it until recently. You might think that there is nothing wrong with this. After all, we routinely read books several decades–or even centuries–after they are written; what harm could a couple of months do? But Gessen’s novel is particularly wrapped up in a specific time period, namely the decade from 1998-2008. Reading it now may make you nostalgic for the very recent past or, quite possibly, make details from three years ago seem especially dated.
The reason the novel is so connected to a particular time period is that the sadness of all the titular sad young literary men is caused by a sense of global ennui, a collective disappointment or sense of betrayal by the world at large. Sam, Mark, and Keith are all intelligent, liberal, worldly, politically conscious, vain, self-obsessed, overeducated, lazy, Jewish, sad, young recent college graduates of the last decade. Their stories don’t really intersect at all—Gessen gives them varying degrees of tangential connection, but never has them interact. The novel is cut into three parts, and each character gets his own chapter in each part. And while these stories move along independently of one another, they inhabit the same landscape.
In fact, the three characters are so similar that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Since Gessen jumps from one character to the next, and usually jumps a few months into the future each time, you often have to pause to remember which one is which. We pick up with Mark, for example, while he is in Syracuse, finishing his thesis on the Russian Revolution and trying to get Celeste to leave her boyfriend and move in with him in his miserable town. But when we last left him, nearly 100 pages ago, wasn’t he married to Sasha and living in New York City? This sudden change is appropriately jarring, since a number of years have passed, but it shouldn’t be so confusing. The characters should have more individuality than that.
Some of this interchangeability, though, is assuredly by design. Gessen is obviously fond of these characters—they are, after all, his ilk, and “Keith” is quite obviously based on the author himself—but he is quick to highlight their flaws, particularly their self-aggrandizing belief that they are special. All three characters have a tendency to equate intelligence with importance. They all feel as if they are personally responsible for the state of the world and, as a corollary, that their opinions on the state of the world entitle them to a certain kind of life.
Sam, for example, wants to write the great Zionist epic, even though he isn’t particularly religious and he’s never even been to Israel. Despite his girlfriend Talia’s accusation that he is “not Zionist enough to write the Zionist epic,” he has lofty goals for this epic: He wants it to play an important role illustrating the Israel-Palestine conflict. It will simultaneously support and condemn Israel, changing how the world sees the conflict: “Perhaps if he wrote an epic, if he was paid for his epic, he and Talia could buy an apartment…Is that what he wanted? A one-state solution, he sometimes thought, a Jewish-Arab democracy, was the only way. But owning an apartment would also be nice.”
In the aftermath of September 11th, Sam’s literary agent calls him. After confirming that Sam is OK, he makes sure to tell him how much this will boost excitement for his book: “We suddenly have three hundred million more readers!” There is a horrible and hilarious vanity in that statement, but it is also refreshingly honest. Gessen incorporates current events in a way that shows how people, particularly of a certain demographic (young), disposition (sad), and background (literary), tend to selfishly assume that historical events are about them individually.
In the first chapter, for example, Keith runs into Lauren, an old college classmate of his, who happens to be Al Gore’s daughter. In the same breath, he simultaneously recollects his regret over his relationship with Lauren and over Gore’s failed campaign. He remembers proposing to his girlfriend on Election Night 2000, when it looked like Gore had won Florida, and getting this response: “Yes…Especially now that we’ll have an environmental President who’ll assure a future for our children.” The engagement, predictably, did not last long.
Gessen is great at capturing the mood surrounding many of the biggest events and trends of recent history, but sometimes this dates the book. It effectively captures the tone of the dissatisfied, justifiably angry yet self-indulgent Left, but this feeling, though recent, seems obsolete now. After all, the world the book depicts is a world without Barack Obama, but with Lehman Brothers. A few years ago it would have felt current, and in a few more in will probably offer some refreshing perspective, but for right now it feels somewhat inert. This is not helped when Gessen gives in to the temptation to add gimmicks that make the book more current: There is one entire chapter devoted to a joke about one character’s doubts about his manhood given the rapidly diminishing size of “his Google.”
The book functions best when the historical signposts work more as a window onto the psyche of the sad, young, literary men. When Sam finally makes his trip to Israel, for example, and ventures into occupied territory, he is confronted with his own ambivalence. He wants to remain neutral, but it is hard when he’s surrounded by a group of Palestinians rejoicing at the news of a terrorist attack in Israel.
Similarly, the last chapter, called simply “2008,” deals with Keith as he gradually accepts the world for what it is, instead of assuming it’s some kind of grievous attack on him personally. This allows him to deal with his own personal life, like his unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend. And while Keith deals with this, Gessen once again demonstrates his ability to blend satire with sincerity, as he ends on a hopeful note:
“Now it was too late, as I have said—but also, you know, not too late. We had to live. And there were enough of us, I thought, if we just stuck together. We would take back the White House, and the statehouses and city hall and town councils. We’d keep the Congress. And in order to ensure a permanent left majority, Gwyn, we’d have many left-wing babies. My love.”