Literary & Romantic Ambitions, Amos Lassen on Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men


 

Amos Lassen was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. After getting his M.A., he went on aliyah and lived in Israel for many years as a member of a kibbutz near Degania Bet. He served as supervisor of secondary English education for the State of Israel and taught at several universities there.  He returned to the U.S. and New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina hit and was evacuated by the National Guard to Little Rock, Arkansas, which he calls home until he returns to Israel. He is on the faculty of the University of Central Arkansas where he teaches English and Biblical Hebrew. Amos is the founder of Literary Pride—a gay reading group and Cinema Pride—a gay movie group. He is extremely proud of two accomplishments—getting the Arkansas Literary Festival to recognize gay literature and for organizing the first GLBT film festival in the state.

 

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Keith Gessen

All the Sad Young Literary Men

Viking, 2008

 

Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men is a jewel of a novel that tears asunder the romantic and literary ambitions of three well-educated men. All the Sad Young Literary Men is even more of a prize because it is Gessen’s debut. Not a novel that makes you laugh consciously, Gessen has written a black comedy in the form of stories that alternate between the three heroes of the book.

First, there is Mark, a doctoral candidate in Russian history, disappointed to discover what he has learned about the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks do nothing for his sex life. When his marriage fails and he becomes distracted by on-line porn and Internet dating it becomes clear his attempt at a successful literary career, satisfying relationships, and a PhD in history are certainly doomed. This character’s 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 even though he speaks no Hebrew and has never been to Israel. While visiting Israel to research his book, Sam comes to realize the trip was not so much done in the quest for information but rather to get out of a one-sided romance back in Cambridge. His days are consumed by worrying about his girlfriends and checking emails. The advance money he wastes and as the contract expires he takes on temp jobs to return the advance. As he balances spreadsheets, he has less and less time to spend on the Internet and his identity (i.e. his profile) begins to fade away. When he discovers the number of times his name is mentioned on Google drops from 300 to 22, he falls apart.

Keith, our third “musketeer,” is a cultural critic and a Russian immigrant who seems to be Gessen’s persona (being born in Russia and the editor of the cultural review N+1). Keith is a liberal writer who has problems separating the personal from the political illustrated by his two “weaknesses” of alcohol and the philosophy of Hegel. Although he considers himself a failure, he is really the only one of the three that has any success. He is also the only one of the three that relates his story in the first person—perhaps allowing us to be drawn to him.

These three are Gessen’s clever young men of our generation—would-be intellectuals that 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. Although the three are educated, they have trouble deciding what they really want out of life and as they fail they become a little wiser and a lot more cynical. Easily distracted and with poor communication skills they are defeated effortlessly by their grandiose ideas.

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 proper novel because it reads as a series of vignettes connected by disconnection. Each character is only broadly connected by achieving both literary and romantic failure. And all three have yet to develop into full manhood. In fact, do not think these characters have a concept of what manhood truly 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 are afraid to know themselves 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 interlaced with both affection and cruelty creating a portrait of young adults that is scathing. As Mark, Sam and Keith attempt to find maturity, responsibility, and fame, they trip over themselves and each step they take is filled with humor and a biting honesty.

All three are readers, writers, and thinkers but they seem only to really care about women. They want women on their terms, but more than this they yearn for success feeling being successful is tantamount to acceptance. 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 to treat women and, therefore, do not succeed with them. The idea that the grass is always greener somewhere else also plays a part in their conception of 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. It’s easy for literary men to see some of themselves in Mark, Keith, and Sam. However, even taken together we still do not have a complete man.

            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. These young men desperately want to fit into society but have no practical concept of how. Although they are overly career-minded, they are afraid of being seen as such. They are used to being non-mainstream but know, deep down inside, that in order to succeed they must be accepted. The three men embody the positive and negative attributes all of us who work in the field of contemporary literature possess. Beneath the satire, there is honesty here that many critics have not seen. Yet, I am unsure as to how this book fits into the larger literary canon, if it fits at all. Is All the Sad Young Literary Men a homage to the sentimental educational novel? Of that, it is hard to say. Some may find Gessen’s novel disjointed and smug, but this is probably an outgrowth of 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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