Keith Gessen's three characters (and perhaps the author, too) join an already overlarge generation of expensively educated, middle-aged men whose happiest period of life was college. Sociologically, it's a sad state of affairs, and from a literary perspective, it's well-trodden turf. But with his keen sense of bathos, Gessen nevertheless whips this familiar material into an amusing novel.
All the Sad Young Literary Men (Viking Adult, 256 pages, $24.95), Gessen's debut, follows three Harvard graduates as they struggle with too much education and not enough purpose in literary Manhattan. During their time at university, Sam, Mark and Keith have imbibed highbrow notions about what constitutes a worthwhile life, but none has the slightest idea how to pay for it, or how to keep a girlfriend.
Trying to differentiate between them is a waste of time, as it quickly becomes apparent they are all variations on the same character, written in the same voice, with slightly different emphases. Was Keith the one who stresses about the Israeli Occupation? Or was he the one who's obsessed with the Mensheviks? It's irrelevant. Each character routinely rides his intellectual hobby horse; each is involved in a lengthy recovery from the breakup of an early post-college relationship; and each has a boyish affinity (!) for the exclamation mark. The fact they never meet in the novel might be "meta" or "ironic" or something. Or, practically speaking, it might be the only way the author could devise to keep them nominally separate in the reader's mind.
It almost goes without saying that women characters exist only as foils to their cerebral male suitors—they haven't a whiff of depth. But what's most disappointing is the way intellectual pursuits are totally co-opted by vanity. Put another way: Yes, these characters talk a lot about Lenin, the Holocaust, the 2004 elections—but it never amounts to anything. Although each is ostensibly a public intellectual, the most significant theorizing that Keith, Mark and Sam do is to apply principles learned from the Russian Constituent Assembly to their uneventful love lives. Ultimately, thinkers like Hegel and Ulinksy serve merely as window dressing for a depressing—if witty—chronicle of how difficult it is to get pussy after Harvard.
The strength of Literary Men lies in how accurately it chronicles the modern phenomenon of the Ivy League idler. Gessen dispatches familiar highbrow pretensions—political punditry, novel-writing, groundbreaking dissertations—with devastating anticlimax. The promising young Zionist author (actually an uninformed anti-Semite) must return his prestigious advance and turn to temping. The up-and-coming liberal journalist spends the night in his car on the campus of his old high school, alone and lonely. And the grad student of Russian History? He isn't studying in that library carrel—he's looking at porn.
With the exception of a mawkish and unconvincing penultimate chapter, Gessen is content to leave things there, ideologically. Perhaps at one time men were different—our European ancestors, for instance, who traveled halfway across the world and forged lives in the Western Hemisphere. But these days, the wind in America blows toward the north, then turns around and blows toward the south. All is vanity. Or, as the author succinctly states, "…all the feelings one expended, received, that one felt at the core of one's being, had turned, in the course of things, to dust."
That kind of American fatalism is nothing new; F. Scott Fitzgerald's All the Sad Young Men, after whom Literary Men is self-consciously titled, is a prime example. But in refusing to tamper with a tried-and-true literary pessimism—or in taking it up to begin with—Gessen, a gifted prose stylist, has missed an opportunity.
ATTEND: Keith Gessen will read from and sign copies of his debut novel on Thursday, May 1, at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-228-4651.