“All the Sad Young Literary Men”– literary and romantic ambitions


Gessen, Keith. “All the Sad Young Literary Men”, Viking, 2008.

Literary and Romantic Ambitions

Amos Lassen

I came across Keith Gessen’s “All the Sad Young Literary Men” quite by accident but what a wonderful accident that was for me as I discovered a jewel of a novel. It is even more of a prize because it is Gessen’s first novel and it literally tears asunder the romantic and literary ambitions of three men who are well educated.

I hesitate to call the novel a comedy because it is not a book that makes you laugh consciously. Let me classify it as a black comedy in the form of stories that alternate between the three heroes of the book. First there is Mark who is a doctoral candidate in Russian history. He is disappointed that what he has learned about the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks do nothing for his sexual life.

When his marriage fails, he becomes distracted by on-line porn and Internet dating and his attempt to have a successful literary career, satisfying relationships and a PhD in history seems doomed. His activities also do not do much in helping him finish his dissertation. His major struggle is to find and identify what exactly is required of a man who is afraid to miss a phone call from a woman who will probably never call.

“Celeste was not calling. The afternoon, the Friday afternoon, moved and waned, but Celeste did not call. Mark was in his apartment, staring at the phone that had become—after eight weeks  of Celeste’s streaky calling practices—a kind of techno-death trap for the phone calls of Celeste…”

Then there is Sam who gets a contract (while he is still in his twenties) to write the great Zionist epic. He speaks no Hebrew and has never been to Israel. His days are consumed by worrying about his girlfriends and checking emails. When he discovers that the number of times his name is mentioned on “Google” from 300 to 22, he falls apart.

When Sam visits Israel to research his book, he realizes that the trip was not so much for the quest for information but rather to get out of a one-sided romance back in Cambridge that he was involved in. As for the advance money that he received, he wastes it and the time on the contract expires and he is due to return the advance. He takes on temp jobs and as he balances spreadsheets, he has less time to spend on the Internet and his identity (i.e. his profile) begins to fade away.

Keith, our third “musketeer”, is a cultural critic and a Russian immigrant who seems to me perhaps to be Gessen himself. The author himself was born in Russia and is the editor of “n+1” that deals with issues of culture.

He is a liberal writer who has problems in separating the personal from the political. Although he considers himself a failure, he is really the only one of the three that has any success and his novel is the proof. He is also the only one of the three that relates his story in the first person—perhaps this allows us to be drawn to him. Keith comes from an educated family and is a Harvard graduate. His flair for survival is admirable. Up until now he has been fairly successful and he has his family to back him up.

He toyed both with alcohol and the philosophy of Hegel as a student and he remains tempted by these two “weaknesses”.

The three are Gessen’s depiction of the clever young men of our generation. They are would-be intellectuals and they are self-pitying, self-obsessed and eager to be recognized. They yearn for love and fall in and out of it. When they realize who they are, they cast off their outsized ambitions and find new goals. The three are educated men but they have trouble deciding what they really want out of life. And they fail at these, become a little wiser and a lot more cynical. They have poor skills of communication and easily defeated by grandiose ideas and they are distracted with ease.

Is this homage to the genre of the sentimental educational novel? Of that it is hard to say. I feel the three men embody some of the attributes as well as the negative issues that all of us who work in the field of contemporary literature experience. I am yet unsure as to how this book fits into the larger literary canon, if it fits at all. Beneath the satire there is honesty here that many critics have not seen.

The three men share ages and desires to arrive on the literary scene and as we watch these three go about trying to reach their goals we see both savageness and tenderness. I hesitate to call the book a novel because what it reads like is a series of vignettes that are connected by disconnection. Each of the characters is connected only by both literary and romantic failures and they, all three, have yet to develop to full manhood. I do not think they have a concept of what manhood really is.

The men have ambitions to change the world and even though the three never meet, their lives come together as each tries to find his way to manhood. They realize that none of them will change the world and the only thing that they seem to have in common is the ability not to succeed. They seem afraid to know themselves as to who they really are and success, many times, depends on one’s having a positive self image.

Gessen takes on serious political issues while having a good time poking fun at his characters. He looks at love and history as it applies to his three characters. The writing is subtle yet biting and the humor is caustic.

“What are you doing?” she asked sharply…

“I’m—nothing, Nothing much, Sushok.

She accepted this. “Mufka,” she said. “I’m sad”.

“I know, Sushok”. I’m sad too.”

“Mufka, listen.” She could always turn, so quickly. “Today I learned that Canadians think John Irving is a great American novelist. Isn’t that funny?”

“Don’t be a snob, Sushok”.

“Oh, all right. I really like Canadians actually, they’re very polite”.

The erudition of the characters is undermined with both affection and cruelty and the portrait of young adults is scathing. As Mark, Sam and Keith attempt to find maturity, responsibility and fame, they trip over themselves but each step that they take is filled with humor and a kind of honesty that bites. I believe that the kind of honesty they seek is to be themselves in a world where they do not exactly fit. Isn’t that basically what everyone wants?

The three men know overconfidence and self-disgust. What they want is to be told that they have some worth. They want “normal” lives in an abnormal world. They want women on their terms but more than all else they yearn for success. They feel that being successful is tantamount to acceptance.

They desperately want to fit into society but have no concept how to. They are used to being non-mainstream but know, deep down inside, that in order to succeed they must be accepted,

They are overly career-minded but are afraid of being seen as such and to some degree the three are interchangeable. They are all three readers, writers and thinkers but they seem to only really care about women. They want the girls they cannot have and do not want the girls that they can. The three seem to have no concept as to how t treat women and therefore do not succeed with them. The idea that the grass is always greener somewhere else also plays a part in the way they treat women. The three know that they are smart but they are also aware of their pathos and I think that Gessen is using this technique to get us to like the guys more. I am not sure that I do like them anymore but I certainly find myself thinking about being a “sad, young literary” man. I do think that it is easy to see some of ourselves in Mark, Keith and Sam and that taken together we still do not have a complete man.

The title of the book fits it like a glove. The three sad young literary men come together because of their literary aspirations, their ennui and their personal lives. I understand that several critics find the book to be disjointed and smug. Perhaps this is because they were expecting too much. Gessen is no “infant terrible” in the literary world and I thoroughly enjoyed his debut novel and hope that we will hear more from him.

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