Sad young and literary in 1938 and you could at least prove yourself opposing Hitler, sad young and literary in 1968 and you could demonstrate in Grosvenor Square, but what if you had the misfortune to be sad young and literary in 1998? This terrible moment in the history of being young is where 33-year-old Keith Gessen begins his first novel. Mark, Keith and Sam, our three sad young literary men, are just out of college. They gather at the apartment in Queens Mark shares with his girlfriend, Sasha, they temp, go to second-run movies and eight-dollar plays, shop for food at Korean grocers and clothes at the Salvation Army on Spring and Lafayette,
but most of all Mark and Sasha and their friends worried about history and themselves. They read and listened and wrote and argued. . . . But what if they were missing it? What if it was happening, in New York, not a few blocks from them, what if they knew someone to whom it was happening, or who was making it happen – what if they were blind to it? What if it wasn’t them?
It’s not that they long for an earlier, better moment to be young in, but they are desperate to know what their moment is. Missing it would seem unfair, since they care about things – Kosovo, Israel, Goya, Hegel, who’s publishing in the New American and Debate – and this rarefied sort of caring was unusual even at the good universities they went to. Gessen’s portrait of his generation is a study of ambition, but its point is not to dazzle us with the sad young men’s talent. He wants to charm us with their bids for literary celebrity, starting by showing us they are lost from the start. Yet why should this generation feel so particularly lost?
It all begins at college. Having given ‘irretrievable sunny days’ to worrying over his application, Keith is now at Harvard, worrying over the quickest way to ‘fulfil the reading list with which my favourite high school history teacher had sent me off into the world’. Keith shares a room with Ferdinand, the first of many foils to the sad young literary men, who is mysteriously, or so it seems to Keith, successful with women. Keith tries to keep up, but is too quickly drunk, too shy to speak to the girls he was talking to the night before, altogether too gauche. So he gives up and retreats to his carrel to write about Lincoln – ‘something of his tragedy had entered my bones, so that if I was noble I was noble like Lincoln, and if I was solemn I was solemn like Lincoln’ – while Ferdinand dates the daughters of professors, hedge-fund managers, Hollywood producers, eventually even the vice-president’s daughter. Keith shuffles from shared room to sofa most nights. Though Ferdinand soon cheats on the vice-president’s daughter, and Keith’s chance to tell her what he ‘thought of things’ dribbles away, having a roommate who almost slept with the ‘Veep’s handsome daughter’ is the sort of kudos Harvard is meant to bring (though of course in Keith’s ‘secret dreams of Harvard’ he was the one to sleep with the vice-president’s daughter).
The vice-president’s daughter does not make the sadness go away, however, just elsewhere, mostly to the photographs dotted throughout this chapter like a class presentation with slides (it is the only one with photos), which isn’t inappropriate for the part of the story in which the sad young literary men appear as nerdy college boys. Here is the solemn, noble Lincoln; here is Monica Lewinsky, lips parted; and here is a younger President Clinton with possible future president Al Gore. They stand now, as they couldn’t in the 1990s, for the nation’s disappointments, but they are involved in Keith’s own: Clinton’s indiscretion is like Ferdinand’s, and Keith’s proposal to his med school girlfriend when the 2000 election is called for the vice-president almost immediately fails. The call-back felt like ‘a flood of light had burst into the apartment on St Paul Street and caught us out.’ The sadness of the defeated Democrats has flooded Keith’s story; it seeps, too, into Mark’s and Sam’s.
Sam starts out luckier, seeming to know what the moment is about already and what his part in it is: ‘What Sam needed to do, he realised after much thought and much agony and some introspection, was write the great Zionist novel.’ Gessen’s mannered sentences help the satire stay good-tempered: the expected repetition of ‘much’ becomes the deflatory, but not stinging ‘some’. It stings later when Sam wonders how to begin: ‘First he had to check his email.’ And then there is his guilt about the possibility of ‘abandoning Israel’ and the more concrete but associated guilt about cheating on his Israeli girlfriend with his ex, who is staying in a sanatorium following the election: ‘She’d finally checked herself in after breaking her television set during the inauguration.’ Soon his Israeli girlfriend is moving to the right, his ex is moving to the left, ‘and, if you added it up, they were all moving toward disaster. Al-naqba.’ But perhaps there is a solution: ‘He felt the need to expand. Into Jordan, Lebanon, the Sinai . . . He had two women, he loved them both, and he could not, would not, imagine it otherwise.’ All Sam needs is to persuade his ex of this. He phones her:
‘Look at Israel. I mean, we’re supposed to be with one person, right, we’re supposed to sit at home and believe in our tiny little life with that person, we’re supposed to just stay within our boundaries. But look at Israel – it’s the only country on earth whose borders are unrecognised by international law, whose borders are always changing.’
‘A lot of good it’s done them.’
‘But at least they feel alive!’
There was a silence on the other end. The metaphor, like a cease-fire, had collapsed more quickly than he’d hoped.
It’s sly of Gessen to have Sam’s metaphor collapse, only to land him with a simile. Parallels are among the things All the Sad Young Literary Men is most preoccupied with: Keith can’t write about Lincoln without seeing himself as Lincoln, Sam can’t think about Israel without imagining his love dilemmas as a naqba. The sad young literary men are always coming up with grandiose metaphors to help them think about their lives, but the metaphors they choose are always on the verge of collapse. Only at the end of the novel do the sad young literary men recognise that metaphors are of ‘limited use in figuring out your personal life’. They have had their use as a way to bring cool (sex) and uncool (Israel) together, a way for these boys – who are not short on ambition – to have it all: Lincoln and the vice-president’s daughter, a Zionist novel and two girlfriends. But were these things worth having? The failure of Sam’s metaphor (and his plan) brings him a kind of peace; 9/11 brings both girls to his TV set without disaster, and he falls asleep to the sound of their arguing about Israel: ‘tired Sam . . . who only wanted to kiss the throats of women, and who only wanted peace’. Sam may be ridiculously self-obsessed but we tuck him in and turn off the light.
Keith’s summer job means he ends up meeting his intellectual hero, Morris Binkel. Keith wants Binkel to say he sees something in him. What he does say is: ‘Even the most mediocre mediocrity can make a nice life for himself in New York if only he went to Harvard’ – which makes Keith suddenly want ‘very badly to cry’. And Sam’s number of Google hits is shrinking. He is comforted at first to see that Mark, the third sad young literary man, has no Google presence at all, but then he decides to phone the search engine:
‘Look,’ he said. ‘My Google is shrinking.’
‘My Google. I Google myself and every time it gets lower.’
‘Right. Pages often go off-line and then they no longer show up on searches.’
‘Yes, I understand that, but this is getting out of hand. I was in the mid-three hundreds before. Now I’m at, like, 40,’ Sam lied.
Gessen has talked about wanting to reclaim characters that more usually appear in Judd Apatow movies (The 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up), seeing this as a stand against the notion that only the Holocaust is worth writing about. Detail makes the same university-educated, early 21st-century, city-dwelling characters more interesting: Keith reads Rousseau’s Confessions in a Maryland McDonald’s during college vacations; Mark uses library computers that bear ‘no email’ signs to email, feeling this is a very brave thing to do. Perhaps it’s the first time these sorts of thing have been set down in a novel.
When we meet the Google-less Mark again, the mad, sad, funny turn of Sam’s story has crept up on his. There is lots of seepage of tone and mood between the stories, which can make the three men seem indistinguishable. They share the same idiom, a sort of sentimental sighing over women (‘Jillian, my Jillian,’ Keith says; ‘Talia, lithe lovely Talia,’ Sam says; ‘It was Sasha. His dear Sasha,’ Mark says), which makes the novel disorientating, not to say nauseating, to read. A generation can, maybe even should, share a mood and an idiom, but making one character difficult to tell from another seems the least interesting solution to the problem of writing the story of a group (the use of the first-person plural in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End is another solution, and perhaps the more inventive).
Mark and Sasha marry but are defeated by cut-price living and Sasha leaves, giving Mark up to the present dangers of dating in Syracuse, where he is completing a PhD about Roman Sidorovich, ‘the funny Menshevik’. Library internet searches lead him to the Buck Fuck Bus, in which, it’s claimed, a group of men drive round, pick up women and pay them a dollar for filmed sex, and to online dating (but he can’t use a picture, or his real name, in case Sasha sees). He dates two real women: Celeste, a New York-based journalist whom he courts assiduously, and Leslie, a fellow student whom he sleeps with accidentally. New to speaking to women who are not Sasha, he worries about being reachable. He uses a 1471 function on his phone, but it becomes expensive; then he orders unlimited use of 1471, but it comes to seem inadequate, so he buys Caller ID:
This was enough, this was basically enough – and yet he worried, now, on this lonely Friday, that Celeste could simply block her number, clever Celeste, and that the cordless’s ring was too weak, and he was playing his stereo too loud . . . and also his hearing wasn’t so great to begin with, truth be told, and so, in short, at long last, he simply thrust the receiver down his pants. ‘There!’ he said to the empty apartment. ‘When the phone call comes, I will feel it like a man.’
This chapter is called ‘Sometimes like Liebknecht’ and begins with Mark comparing the situations he ends up in with women to the way Karl Liebknecht ended up, ‘murdered in prison alongside Rosa Luxemburg after their bid for power failed in 1919’. But Mark seems so pathetic, his understanding of what he’s doing so slight that the comparison makes him ridiculous. Each time I read the novel, I put it down at this point: I couldn’t stomach any more whiny men, and I couldn’t see why seemingly intelligent women were competing to sleep with them. The novel has three parts, like a well-made play, and this is the limp second act.
At the beginning of part three, we are with Sam in the West Bank: ‘And in Jenin, Sam waited for the tanks.’ This sentence, echoing the novel’s first (‘In New York, they saved’), shows this is a fresh start, even if Sam has only left the US because of a girl. It is a relief to be in a place that might rouse this profoundly undramatic novel, and perhaps it is not coincidental that Sam’s few weeks in the Middle East produce some of the novel’s best writing. Sam is in the West Bank with a Swedish-led human rights group, which sends him to stay with Akhmed, a Palestinian English teacher. Being in Jenin allows Sam to come to terms with the fact that even in the Occupied Territories there are times when nothing happens. (The Swedes tell him it’s enough to ‘bear witness’: ‘OK, OK, but he was bearing witness to nothing; there weren’t any tanks; he was bearing witness to checking his email.’) He learns something about his Jewishness in a café when a suicide bombing in Jerusalem is reported:
Sam turned to a group of men at another of the plastic tables. One of them was smiling at Sam, as if he wanted to say something, share the good news. Sam smiled back, because he wanted to share the good news, too. The man held up his hand with the fingers spread out: five. And then he made a throat-slitting motion. And then he held up his hand again. Five dead. In Jerusalem. Oh Jesus. That’s why he was smiling. Some asshole had blown himself up.
Sam’s stomach turned over inside him, it was full of Fanta, and he felt sick. The smile left his lips and he held the man’s gaze long enough that the man could know Sam didn’t think this was such good news. Eventually, the man looked away, embarrassed.
Sam has not exactly been hiding his Jewishness from Akhmed, but he hasn’t been entirely honest with him. The moment in the café is galvanising for Sam: he must tell his girl they should be together and Akhmed should know. And so Sam takes action, and it feels like this is a first for a sad young literary man. He books his ticket home, sends a brave email to his girl and he tells Akhmed too, who is uncomprehending (‘How can a Jew be against the Occupation?’), amazed (‘That is incredible’) and finally sad:
Oh, said Akhmed. Oh oh oh. Lying next to Sam, who could do nothing but look up and wait and try not to be shaken from the bedrock conviction he’d reached just a little bit earlier in that day. Said Akhmed, crying: Why why why.
But it isn’t all broken: on his last night, Akhmed invites Sam to join his friends, defying curfew to ‘do Internet’. And on the way back, there is a tank between them and home, and it opens fire. One of Akhmed’s friends throws a rock at the tank – ‘a sharp metallic plunk’ – and they run home: ‘Now, at long last, his arms pumping at his sides, the tank still firing madly behind them, his chest heaving, he knew. The Palestinians were idiots. But the Israelis – well, the Israelis were fuckers. And when Sam saw an idiot faced with his natural enemy, the fucker, he knew whose side he was on.’ Back in New York, Sam decides he wants to go to law school.
The sadness has turned into something else: anger. Perhaps anger is just sadness in an energetic mode. The energy is felt in Mark’s story, where he can get close to finishing his doctorate and to choosing between his women, and in Keith’s, who has been away and comes back to New York to find that he hasn’t fallen behind: ‘In fact the others had fallen behind.’ And there is a new note in these last chapters, mostly found in the character of Gwyn, one of Mark’s students now come to New York. She had seemed another blank beauty in Syracuse, but she takes to the New York literary world with ease. Sad young and literary in 2008, she interns in publishing, and sees it for what it is; she has the right lines to seduce sad young literary men like Mark – ‘I miss the Mensheviks’– and Keith, to whom she says that she worships ‘the life of the mind’. Then she lands a job ‘at a famous book review’ and brings home review copies – ‘hundreds of review copies, an entire underground publishing economy’ – and to Keith she seems ‘filled with bright hope for the future and also uncertainty, of course, as to what would become of her and who she really was. (She kept asking me.)’ Gwyn is not without her anxieties, but she is thriving where the boys are not quite succeeding: might it be better to be a girl who takes things in her stride instead of a sad young literary man? Gessen changed the novel’s dedication: in the proof copies it was dedicated to ‘my friends – with apologies’, but maybe he thought better of presenting All the Sad Young Literary Men as an in-joke between boys, and now the dedication reads ‘for Anya, Alison and Anne’. From one perspective, the novel is an elaborate joke on sad young literary men.
There is another joke on them in the novel’s title, which plays on that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of stories, All the Sad Young Men. It is understood that the sadness of Gessen’s protagonists comes from being sensitive men of letters in a cruel world, but they are sad, too, in the sobering sense of uncool. One of the things the novel is interested in is rescuing intellectual solemnity from nerdiness, which partly explains all three boys’ love of grand metaphors that aim to bring poles together: Keith is Lincoln, Sam is Israel, Mark is Liebknecht, Lenin, Mick Jagger, Roman Sidorovich. The boys turn their sadness into coolness with varying degrees of success: perhaps the only one to manage it is the real Keith. Gessen went to Harvard, won a National Book Critics’ Circle award for his translation Voices from Chernobyl, has written for the New Yorker and the New York Review and now co-edits the journal n+1 with Mark Greif. (Benjamin Kunkel is an editor at large there, and All the Sad Young Literary Men is a sort of younger brother to Kunkel’s Indecision.) Was it as part of the project to make intellectual solemnity cool, in art as in life, that Gessen appeared in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times on publication of All the Sad Young Literary Men? There, too, he worked on the detail: he was posing against the Manhattan skyline on the Brooklyn side of the East River and having a beer and discussing Don DeLillo after a game of touch football.
All the Sad Young Literary Men is a Bildungsroman, in which the boys’ reward for their suffering is not marriage but a career and a falling away of their many anxieties. Charm has won out over ridicule, giving each of the sad men a happy ending. And Gessen writes so readably that you can’t hold it against them for long. Well, not for very long.