By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 20, 2008
ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN
By Keith Gessen
Viking. 242 pp. $24.95
This interesting and agreeable first novel, by a young writer who already packs a formidable resumé, is a considerably better-than-average exercise in slacker fiction, a genre of which I confess to having only limited knowledge: I've read and reviewed (very favorably) Ted Heller's hilarious novel Slab Rat (2000), and I've seen "Knocked Up." All of which doesn't exactly lop 40 years off my age. But it does leave me aware that stories about goofy young guys who just can't seem to get a handle on life -- not to mention a handle on women -- can be good entertainment for readers, as the saying goes, of all ages.
Keith Gessen himself scarcely qualifies as a slacker. Born in Russia in 1975, he came to the United States with his parents and eventually found his way to Harvard and Syracuse Universities. He now lives in Brooklyn, where he writes articles and reviews for a number of national publications. He is a founding editor of n+1, a literary magazine that has caused a modest amount of controversy in New York's sublimely inbred literary circles; its political bias is decidedly from the left, but, as Gessen said in an interview with the online New York Inquirer, "we hate the contemporary systems of buying, selling, profit, speed, etc., but we like a lot of contemporary art." Beyond that, Gessen is well on the way to a career as a translator from the Russian; his books thus far include Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl (2005) and a forthcoming edition of Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmila Petruskevskaya.
All in all, a serious guy who wouldn't seem to be either a slacker or a candidate to write a slacker novel, but that's just what he's done in All the Sad Young Literary Men. It's a novel with three protagonists -- Keith, Sam and Mark -- who, as they turn into their 30s, are discovering that "you did not emerge from your twenties smiley-faced and full of cheer and love for all existence," and that they are "no longer very young, no longer very happy, though still unsettled, still a mess." Their stories are told separately and connect only in passing ways, yet together they form a convincing portrait of bright young men with vague literary ambitions who can't quite work up the energy to pull the trigger on their futures.
Each of them obviously is drawn to some degree on Gessen himself -- scarcely a surprise given that this is a first novel -- in that they're urban guys in their 20s during most of the novel, they're Jewish, and they're smart but, at this point in their lives, out of focus. Only the four sections about Keith are narrated in the first person. When we meet him it is the 1990s, and he is a student at Harvard. He comes from the Maryland suburb of Clarksville, a leafy appendage to Columbia, and he is reading about Abraham Lincoln in a scattershot way while worrying about various girls and complaining, in a most slackerly way, "I just don't understand what people want from me. I just don't really understand what I'm doing." One summer he gets a job "at the student employment agency at Johns Hopkins, which sent students out on odd jobs -- mostly, as it turned out, moving furniture." Mainly, he's just spinning his wheels:
"It was a nice time, though the work was hard and the money was bad, and I had no idea, really no idea, what would become of me in the years ahead. My college career had been, so far, disappointing. . . . I kept waiting for someone to tell me what they thought I should do, should be, what particular fate I, in particular, was fated for. It was the last summer that I hung out with my high school friends, and it was the last time I'd ever feel that strange, expectant, hopeful, pleading way."
For all that, he's smart enough to know that this won't go on forever, that sooner or later the trigger will in fact be pulled, "that if I applied myself, I'd be fine, more than fine, and if I didn't, I would probably fall through the cracks." Much the same can be said of the other two. Mark, who to my taste is the most interesting of the three, had gone to Russia while he was in college, had met a girl named Sasha there, and three years later married her and brought her to New York. By 1998 he was making "his meager living . . . by translating industrial manuals into English" and, on the side, studying Soviet history and thinking about graduate school. Like Gessen, he winds up at Syracuse University, and then his marriage falls apart: "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."
So Mark is cast back into the world of women, one that all good slackers find infinitely beguiling and mysterious. Things don't go very well in that regard in Syracuse, but then he moves to Brooklyn and suddenly everything seems to fall into place. For years he has been "preoccupied with the problem of 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" -- and suddenly it's all around him, "in the form of young women who thought that Mark was just fine, that Mark was just dreamy. They loved that he didn't have any money; they adored that he didn't know how to go about getting it. He was so cute! thought the women. Where did you come from? thought Mark. The answer was that the colleges produced them. Then bought them plane tickets, gave them Mark's address. 'The workers have no country,' wrote Karl Marx -- but Mark Grossman did have a country, as it turned out, and that country was New York. . . . At the age of thirty, Mark Grossman had finally solved the problem of sex."
The problem of sex, maybe, but not the problem of women. Just ask Sam. His dream, "he realized after much thought and much agony and some introspection, was [to] write the great Zionist novel," even though he knows nothing about the subject, but his main preoccupations are Arielle, his ex-girlfriend, and Talia, "a long-term endeavor" who packs plenty of challenges: "Talia was a strategic, a territorial, problem: where would Sam be when she was at Spot A; what was Talia's current liquidity, and did he need to withdraw cash; where was her silver hair clip? Talia had weaknesses, aspirations, well-mapped idiosyncrasies. He would, perhaps, spend the rest of his life with her; that is, if he played his cards correctly, and she also played correctly; there were complications, corrections, concessions."
Sam is forever comparing his own life to Israel's history, just as Mark is forever comparing his life to the Russian revolutionaries. When one of his girlfriends suddenly announces that "she had broken up with her boyfriend, the very boyfriend Mark had so zealously tried to chase away," Mark is taken aback: "In his way he'd developed an attachment to the boyfriend, as the revolutionaries might be said to have developed an attachment to the tsar." Then this girlfriend, Celeste, gets competition in the fetching form of Gwyn, and the temptation to draw parallels intensifies:
"If meeting Celeste post-boyfriend was like arriving in Russia in March 1917, hopeful March after the tsar's abdication, the appointment of the provisional government, the short-lived democratic process, then they were well into anarchic June or even forbidding July. Was Gwyn his Kerensky? His Kornilov? Ekh. Ultimately these historical parallels were of limited use in figuring out your personal life."
They're of much use to Gessen, though, as he extracts a full measure of fun from the proclivity of these smart young guys to intellectualize everything to death. As the passages quoted above make plain, he has a deft satiric touch and a nice feel for irony. He gets a little soft in the closing chapter, which mixes Keith's evolving personal life with Washington's evolving political life in 2006 and 2007, but ending novels is almost never easy, and it's a perennial problem for first novelists. It will be interesting to see whether, the second time around, Gessen pulls himself out of self and into the larger world, or whether he succumbs to the navel-gazing that too many literary American novelists find so tempting. There can be no doubt, though, that he has plenty of talent to work with. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.