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All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith…

All the Sad Young Literary Men (2008)

by Keith Gessen

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359750,213 (2.99)8
A charming yet scathing portrait of young adulthood at the opening of the twenty-first century, All the sad young literary men charts the lives of Sam, Mark, and Keith as they overthink their college years, underthink their love lives, and struggle through the encouragement of the women who love and despise them to find a semblance of maturity, responsibility, and even literary fame. Heartbroken in his university town, Mark tries to focus his attention on his graduate work concerning Russian revolt, only to be lured again and again to the free pornography on the library computers. Sam binds himself to the task of crafting "the first great Zionist epic" even though he speaks no Hebrew, has never visited Israel, and is not a practicing Jew. Keith, thwarted by inherited notions of greatness and memories of his broken family, finds solace in the arms of the selfless woman who most reminds him of his past. At every turn, at each character's misstep, All the sad young literary men radiates with comedic warmth and biting honesty and signals the arrival of a brave and trenchant new writer.… (more)

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Showing 5 of 5

Neither fish nor fowl, neither a short story collection nor a novel, Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men is, according to its cover, “fiction.” Mind you, that’s not the countable plural “fictions” (e.g. Borges’ Ficciones), not the indefinite article “a fiction,” but simply “fiction.” Mr. Gessen (or his editor/publisher) proves to be triply ingenious here, as it is with this appellation that he shrugs off the epiphanic duties of the shorter form, the structural incumbencies of the longer, and the ethical responsibilities of the memoir. (There is a character named “Keith” who, like Mr. Gessen, attended Harvard College and associated with the then-Vice President’s daughter.) Aside from “Lauren” (Kristin Gore) and “Keith” (Gessen is somewhat famous himself as founder of the journal n+1), other roman a clef personages include “Prof. Lomaski” (Noam Chomsky) and “Morris Binkel” (Lee Siegel). Otherwise, we are to assume that the characters are fictional, although I suspect that if you went to Harvard in the late 90s or to Syracuse University in the 2000s (as Gessen did as an MFA student) you might recognize some of your classmates in the pages of this “fiction.”

What this fiction is, more precisely, is a book of loosely interconnected stories, each featuring one of three protagonists. While “Keith” serves as a stand-in for the author, the other two, “Sam” and “Mark,” seem to be more like refractions of Gessen’s identity, the former in his Jewishness (Sam wants to write the “great Zionist epic.”) and the latter in his experience as a divorced graduate student at Syracuse (Mark is writing a history dissertation on the Mensheviks.). As long as you don’t expect these stories to have the revelatory pop and sparkle of Chekhov and Cheever (The interconnectedness of them won’t exactly blow your mind, either.), you won’t be disappointed, as there is much to be admired in Gessen’s prose. He writes with unfailing elegance, occasional lyricism and frequent humor. As a well-educated male denizen of the Boston – D.C. megapolis, I’d be lying if I said this book didn’t charm me into laughing at the quirks of my existence. It did, very much so, like when, for instance, Keith professes that “my father fervently believed [that] I-95 was so heavily trafficked, so miserable, so corrupt, especially in its Delaware portion, that one should take the long way – up to Harrisburg and then across the great state of Pennsylvania at top speed.” Or, when Mark reflects in a self-conscious moment that, “[r]ap music was the music of the lonely.” And then there’s Sam’s concern that “[h]is Google was shrinking. It was part of a larger failing, maybe, certainly, but to see it quantified . . . to see it numerically confirmed . . . it was cruel. It wasn’t nice.”

The less favorable reviews of All the Sad Young Literary Men have taken the book and its author to task for navel-gazing. The reviewers behind these screeds are either willfully missing the point or engaging in embarrassingly regressive criticism. As I see it, Gessen is chronicling a particularly solipsistic demographic through increasingly solipsistic times, and thus it is only natural that the narrative feel rather ingrown. Could he have chosen something more ennobling than these young men, with their online dating and their lewd list-making, for his subject (“Sam found similarly that no matter how much he recalculated and recalibrated, took circumstances into account and multiplied by three, there was no avoiding the fact that he hadn’t, in his life, received enough blow jobs.”)? Certainly. Should he have? Of course not. For the sake of both aesthetics and the historical record, the novelist is not obligated to always write about the extremes of human experience. While I would not presume to argue that there are too many novels about cancer or the Holocaust, I will say that there are enough of them, but not nearly enough as spot-on and risible as Mr. Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men.
  A_Hunger_Artist | Aug 8, 2010 |
A provocative mix of the personal and political, through the eyes of characters on the cusp. ( )
  AlRiske | Apr 2, 2010 |
Despite the hype, I found this book to be repetitive--I had a difficult time distinguishing between the voices of the three different narrators. I kept having to refer back to the table of contents/outline. Was this by design? Everything blurred together. Despite that, I did finish it quickly. . . ( )
  solicitouslibrarian | Aug 20, 2009 |
I can understand why Keith Gessen's peculiar novel, "All the Sad Young Literary Men," has drawn such divergent reviews, ranging from Jonathan Yardley naming it as one of the best novels of 2008 to various Amazon readers dismissing it as a disjointed series of whiny elitist sketches peppered with esoteric information about Russian history. This is a different sort of novel than many readers will have encountered previously, demanding a degree of patience before the three narrative threads and 1917 Revolution references coalesce into a meaningful whole.

Organized in three parts, each consisting of three chapters told from the point of view of Sam, Mark or Keith, it takes a while for Gessen's voice to establish itself and for any semblance of plot or theme to emerge. That each of the protagonists is a Russian immigrant who's struggling to distill a career from a liberal arts, Ivy education, while failing miserably to forge a satisfying romantic relationship, makes it especially challenging to keep their personas and story lines from blurring into one another. Indeed you get the strong impression not only that first person narrator, Keith, is the author's alter ego, but that Sam and Mark also present little more than splintered parts of Gessen himself.

These criticisms aside, there are some undeniably funny and moving passages in this most literary offering. Mark's digs on life in Syracuse, NY (which I can appreciate having grown up there) are spot on. And his musings about our young literary men's ill-preparedness for important life decisions will resonate with all of us who have made critical decisions without appreciating their import until later: "The trouble is that when you're young you don't know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don't exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences of certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose."

So my advice is to give Gessen the benefit of the doubt and read this one all the way through, applying the proper amount of attention and trust. By part three of the novel, when Gessen shows how the protagonists are connected through their love interests and connects the dots illustrating the parallels between the Russian Revolution and the recent return to power of the Democratic party in the United States, you can really appreciate what this unique novel is all about. ( )
  KevinJoseph | Dec 27, 2008 |
The three characters are basically the same character given 3 individual lives. Culturally Jewish and of Russian extraction, this highly educated literary guy just can't get his life to work out and he doesn't know how to make it work out as he floats through his twenties. Unsurprisingly, the author is Jewish and of Russian background and a highly educated young literary man. Write what you know and all that.

Gessen clearly has talent and I enjoyed how he worked the politics and history of Israel and Russia into his character's lives and thoughts. For me, though, it's hard to make this sort of "slacker" character altogether worth reading about. ( )
  razerll | May 24, 2008 |
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