ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN
By Keith Gessen
Viking, 242 pages, $24.95
The hazy golden specter of F. Scott Fitzgerald looms over all first novels by young white male Ivy League graduates, but it looms especially large over this one, by Keith Gessen, a limpid-eyed, sensual-mouthed founding editor of the intellectual journal n+1.
It’s there in the title, of course, and in Mr. Gessen’s brittle romanticizing of New York City, though the chic neighborhoods have shifted since the Jazz Age (“Oh god—what would it take to live in such a place?” one character thinks, perambulating among the gleaming muscleds of Chelsea. “What reserves of strength? What reserves of cash?”) It’s there in the titular young men’s melancholy enthusiasm for booze (“I was still drinking too much and giving up on people too quickly” confides one sozzled sophomore), and in their ambivalent pursuit of tempestuous, flighty women who “italicized things” and wear navel rings. And it’s there, baldly, in a blurb on the back of All the Sad Young Literary Men: “One of the best new books I’ve read in a long time,” energetically log-rolls Mr. Gessen’s n+1 colleague and Harvard classmate Benjamin Kunkel (’97), “with an almost classical or Fitzgeraldian excellence to the prose.”
Mr. Kunkel is himself the author of a widely heralded first novel Indecision (2005), the cover of which features the same kind of squiggly, Saul Bass-esque design as Everything Is Illuminated (2002), the widely heralded first novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (Princeton ’99)—a cynical act of marketing that suggests both men offer precisely the same kind of transporting, highbrow laddie-lit experience to the Barnes & Noble buyer. Having failed to read either work—not proudly but because of a weary sense of being overly marketed-to, of getting the Next Great American Novelist forcibly jammed down my throat—I can’t compare them. But the somewhat less-hyped Gessen debut triggers an unwelcome sense of déjà vu all the same.
You’ll find in it lists, à la Nick Hornby; charts and photographs, à la Dave Eggers (when exactly did the novel become a collage, anyway?); and ironic exclamation points, à la almost everybody. Mercifully, there are no prolonged footnotes in the manner of that other big-shot Dave, Foster Wallace. There is, however, a first-person protagonist named, like his creator, Keith.
Why, why does this affectation persist among writers of this set? Doesn’t it feel like an insult to the reader by now? One can just picture Mr. Gessen sitting there in a coffeehouse with his laptop: “Hmm … Kevin … nah … Kenneth … nah … Oh, fuck it, I’ll just go with my own name, an implicit commentary on the ‘fourth wall!’” Can these gentlemen really not be bothered to exercise even the most rudimentary creativity required to invent a moniker for their fictional alter egos? Parents of Park Slope newborns exert more effort, for heaven’s sake.
TO HIS CREDIT, Mr. Gessen dispenses with the gimmicks fairly quickly, and even tries an innovation: distributing the task of the bildungsroman among not one but three young bucks. Along with Keith (“a man in my late twenties who had accomplished next to nothing, had loved, properly, no one”—oh, sniff!), we meet Mark, a grad student in Russian history with a penchant for Internet porn and a cell phone that bleats the theme from Dynasty. Also Sam, the would-be author of a Zionist epic, who charmingly voices the average concerns of today’s up-and-comers: His Google is shrinking; his new lover might mention their bedroom exploits in her newspaper column. The action shifts from Manhattan to Baltimore to Syracuse and Israel; in an obvious metaphor, all three protagonists seem to be on a perpetual quest for parking spaces.
In another era, they would have joined the army (how one longs for Hemingway, with the shrapnel in his leg and the nurses in their peaked caps; even F. Scott did time at Camp Sheridan) and returned hardened, transformed into actual men. Now—pallid, directionless—they spend an awful lot of time checking their e-mail (hard to make riveting reading of that, unless you’re Nicholson Baker); expressing their disillusionment with fallible mentor figures; feeling superior to married lawyers and demarcating as much physical and intellectual distance as possible between themselves and their various paramours. “She was the Edith Wharton of text messaging,” Sam praises one.
Here, meanwhile, are Mark’s ultra-hot musings on sex: “He considered it in the positivist tradition of how to find it, of course, but also, and more significant, in the interpretivist or postmodernist tradition of how to think about it, how to ponder it historically, how to discourse about and critique it.” Self-mocking, but also showoff-y. The female reader can’t help but feel a kind of weary familiarity with such a fellow, as if she had been clumsily groped by him on the sagging couch of the college literary magazine, then giggled over the quirks of his genitalia with her friends.
Not to dismiss Keith Gessen, who can be wry, amusing and—that loathsome word—readable. But there is inherent peril in producing a book so entranced with the idea of the sad young literary man in general. “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Begin with a type, and you find you have created—nothing.”
Alexandra Jacobs is editor-at-large at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.