Joanna Biggs

  • All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
    Heinemann, 242 pp, £11.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 434 01848 2

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.

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