N Minus 1

Keith Gessen writes the sort of book he’s always hated.

All the Sad Young Literary Men
Keith Gessen
Viking, 2008
242 pages, $24.95

Shortly after the publication last month of All the Sad Young Literary Men, its prologue was posted on the n+1 website as an enticement to potential readers. in a refreshing burst of honesty, it bore the tags “cosmopolitanism,” “nostalgia,” “solidarity,” and “money.” With the possible exception of “solidarity,” these would be equally valid descriptions of author Keith Gessen’s career. Formal analysis of the work is made more difficult because Gessen, editor-in-chief of the aforementioned literary journal, rests so much of his academic street-cred on what he is not. From its first issue in 2004, n+1 defined its intellectual merit in relation to its contemporaries, positioning itself as a publication diametrically opposed to the beliefs of its generation.

This generation has been defined by a set of authors, typified by the McSweeney’s publishing clique and its founder Dave Eggers, who claimed that, on some level, everyone should write—a point of view that was, in the view of n+1, needlessly egalitarian. “Subliterary,” sniffed n+1 in an early appraisal of the body of work that emerged from these high-concept, optimistic theories, and Gessen and his colleagues have spent the four years since the magazine’s launch upholding an unapologetically elitist point of view with relentless barrages of criticism issued from on high.

Do McSweeney’s writers title their novels with exclamation points and leave whole pages blank as displays of youthful vim? Such semi-juvenile literary devices to reinvigorate the medium are “regressive,” snapped Gessen and his gang of Ivy Leaguers. McSweeney’s books are marked with a kind of boundless enthusiasm for bending the literary form; scattered throughout are illustrations, digressions, and characters that break the fourth wall to discuss the merits of the book directly with the reader. The response was predictable: “To wear credulity as one’s badge of intellect is not to be a thinker as such.”

As a result of Gessen’s persistent assault on the McSweeney’s style, his ideology has, to some degree, overshadowed any other element of his public persona. And since his book is so firmly rooted in its milieu—the introduction uses the phrase “it was 1998” five times and has a similarly obsessive sense of place, citing street names and specific Park Slope intersections—it’s hard to read it as anything less than a statement of the author’s personal priorities in literature and in life, if the two can even be safely separated.

But snark is cheap—and for all his ambition, Gessen somehow manages to fall into the trap of McSweeney’s-esque gimmickry with an unself-consciousness that his own literary alter-ego would probably condemn. He’s packed the first chapter of his new book with blurred pictures of email inboxes, Monica Lewinsky, and a chart comparing two of the main characters. No drawing of a stapler had been found at press time, although it’s possible that the pages of our review copy weren’t properly cut. In a particularly striking moment of déjà vu, Gessen’s neurotic character sam worries obsessively that a sex columnist will publish details of their tryst in her weekly output–a scenario that can also be found (substituting a sexologist for a sex columnist) on page 335 of Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Shadowing Gessen’s own life closely, the book’s characters are fairly well-off, very well-educated intellectuals; one was born in Russia (as he was), attended Harvard (as he did) and got an MFA at Syracuse (as he did); one of them is even named “Keith” (as he is). All are sexually and intellectually frustrated and flounder in their attempts to overcome their discontent with overambitious academic and libidinal pursuits. if the book were longer, it would be safe to guess that they would go on to start a hyper-aggressive lit-crit journal. Gessen weaves together the lives of his three main characters–Sam, Keith, Mark–to grant us some insight into the lives of over-educated Ivy League graduates who spend their days shotgunning a half-dozen beers and passing out on strange couches, self-made outcasts who are alienated from the world because it doesn’t recognize their genius in the way that the academy had led them to believe it would.

Ironically, Gessen’s novel has touched a popular chord. McSweeney’s sets out to appeal to the precollegiate set, but it’s All the Sad Young Literary Men that is currently ranked #31 on Amazon’s “teens” list (compare to #94 in “literature”). And although the novel tries to eke out a distinctive narrative style, broad swaths of it are cringeworthy (“Sorrow touched me; I was touched, on East 80th Street, by sorrow”) or bank heavily on cliché: “She was going to med school, and I—I was going to write.” The burden of actually sitting down and producing a quality work, as it turns out, is a little heavier than the stones that Gessen periodically hurls in the general direction of his ideological targets.

This is not to discredit the novel’s very genuine angst, nor to say that it doesn’t have some very strong points to make. Gessen reserves his eloquence for the times when his protagonists persevere against remarkable odds or gain a better understanding of how to move forward and improve upon the lives that they find so deeply unpleasant. The problem is that, upon uncovering these larger life truths, the eponymous sad young literary men feel compelled to relate them as incompetently as possible; they trip over their words to explain a new philosophy to an attractive young co-ed before dousing her in vodka and their prominent sexual failings. Aggravating this is the fact that the only thread linking the main characters of the book, aside from a general angst and similar, constantly harped-upon academic backgrounds, is that they’ve slept with the same three women. All of the women are full-lipped and desirable but intellectually inferior in Gessen’s telling– and therefore easily swayed by the protagonists’ powers of persuasion.

The shallowness of these portraits of the artists as young men emphasize the book’s central problem: Despite all of Gessen’s cries for serious, intellectual writing in the pages of his critical journal, All The Sad Young Literary Men doesn’t feel like an attempt to write a serious novel. While the book has some real points of clarity, they’re hard to find amidst the postering and self-indulgence. When a critic whose broadsides are as widely-read as Gessen’s opts to descend from his lofty perch, he’s likely to find the nature of his debt to the reading public has shifted; the fans demand something truly remarkable, and not just lazy navel-gazing. As James Wood pointed out while attacking n+1 in its own pages, “it is easier to criticize than to propose.” It’s incumbent upon Gessen to one-up his generational adversaries, and to substitute meaningful commentary for the idealism and open-mindedness that his clique maligns. Fortunately for his detractors, the book is, as Dave Eggers described his own first novel, “pretty uneven.”

The Blue and White, May 2008, p. 32