Ambitious young writers have long been the unofficial historians of their generations. When we think of the 1920s, the lush imagery of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby comes to mind; or perhaps we think of the hard-boiled prose of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the novel that popularized the phrase, “the lost generation”. And then, of course, there’s Jack Kerouac’s introduction to the Beats, and Ken Kesey’s frenzied reportage of the ‘60s. But how will the current generation be remembered? What literary works will give us our historical identity?
Keith Gessen, a founding editor of the Brooklyn-based intellectual journal N+1, has nominated himself for the task with his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men. Taking its name from Fitzgerald’s 1926 story collection All the Sad Young Men, Gessen’s novel follows three earnest young men, two of whom, Mark and Sam, have already graduated from college (Harvard, it’s implied), and one, Keith, whom we meet while still a freshman there in the late ‘90s.
But what are these young intellectuals, the representatives of my generation, like? Will my grandchildren read about us with the same amazed delight with which I discovered the Jazz Age in the pages of The Great Gatsby? Well, probably not if they get their information from Gessen. At Harvard, Keith spends his time drunkenly throwing up on things and taking himself far too seriously. “I mean, we’re in college. It’s time to get serious! It’s time to get to the bottom of things,” he lectures his classmate, the vice president’s daughter. Later, in one of the novel’s best scenes, he tries unsuccessfully to finish a paper on Lincoln from the common room couch while his roommate wrestles the vice president’s daughter out of her clothes in their bedroom.
For the next two hours I sat at my laptop, that small and nimble machine, its purr doing little to muffle their sounds.
At first they wrestled, she giggled, he growled.
“My shirt’s chafing me, man,” I heard Ferdinand say, cracking up. “I’m taking it off.”
A bit later I heard his shoes thud against the floor, separately. Hers followed, together and daintily, as if she’d not only taken them off simultaneously, but tried to lighten their fall. And presently, I thought I heard from the bedroom little wistful sounds, hesitating, like Ferdinand’s laugh, as they rubbed against each other.
“My pants,” he then said. “They’re chafing me.” They giggled and again there was a furious rustling.
Keith’s narrative is the only one told through the first person. Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because he is intended to be taken for — or confused with — the novel’s Harvard-educated author (who shares not only Keith’s surname, but his Russian birth), the sections that deal with Keith are the least caustic and both benefit and suffer from the subtlety of the emotions Gessen attempts to evoke. “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,” Keith narrates. “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.”
Mark and Sam’s chapters, on the other hand, have fewer such moments of perceptive earnestness, but more than make up for them with their hard-edged, often hilarious, irony. Though we are told that Mark and Sam are friends, their stories are presented independently. We meet Mark in Queens, where he and his Russian wife Sasha are reveling in their youth and bohemian poverty, shopping at thrift stores and hunting for cheap entertainment in the expensive city. Then there is Sam, who has appointed himself Leon Uris’s literary heir. (“What Sam needed to do, he realized after much thought and much agony and some introspection, was write the great Zionist novel … But first he had to check his e-mail.”) While spending the small advance from his publisher, Sam ineptly juggles two girlfriends, and takes turns nursing and flagellating his ego.
In fact, that’s pretty much the story of all the sad young literary men of Gessen’s novel. They stumble through different relationships and cities, born down by the heavy burden of their ambition, their self-doubt, and the impossible demands of their intelligence and youth. The book spans about 10 years in their lives, in three sections each. They watch, horrified, as Bush steals the 2000 election and sends the nation to war; they break up with fiancées and wives, suffer well-deserved humiliations, and worry about growing old before their third decade — all fertile ground for Gessen’s well-pitched wit. At 30, Mark is struggling to finish a dissertation on the Mensheviks from his apartment in Brooklyn and lamenting his lost youth:
“Listen,” he wanted to plead with the teenage Mark, “don’t spend the bar mitzvah money on a car. Let Dad buy you the car. He won’t mind. Save the money for when you’re 30 years old and living in Brooklyn. You’ll need it.” “You’re pathetic,” teenage Mark would no doubt answer. He was a cocky kid. “I need that car to get to hockey practice. Are you going bald?” “I’m not sure,” grown-up Mark would say. “It’s been like this since I was 20. Kind of a mystery.” Then he thought of something. “Listen!” he called out to disappearing teenage Mark. “Don’t go to grad school!”
Gessen’s tenderness for the youth of his protagonists yields the occasional embarrassingly earnest moment, but more often than not, he strikes a rewarding balance between irony and nostalgia – a trick Fitzgerald had yet to learn in 1920 when he published his first novel, This Side of Paradise.
The great tension of All the Sad Young Literary Men is between Gessen’s almost overwhelming earnestness, and his acute sense of irony – his wariness of the pitfalls of over-sentimentality. It is in this sense that his writing most resembles Fitzgerald’s — not his plot (it’s not all that important), and not his language (it’s too self-consciously clever), but the struggle to represent youth and beauty without succumbing fully and uncritically to their seduction. Fortunately, Gessen allows himself to be seduced, but not without maintaining his critical eye and his sense of humor.