Thoroughly modern moping

Keith Gessen’s sad literary men drink Starbucks, use Google, emote

by Kara Nesvig

Reading Keith Gessen’s first novel, “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” is a lot like listening to your most neurotic friend fretting over the phone line. Now, imagine that fretful friend multiplied by three, and divide that by the dissertations and doctorates necessary to that golden graduate degree. And voilà, that’s the equation for the three sad, literary gents who inhabit Gessen’s world, a world that toes the thin line of “Hey, is this really fiction?” with its allusions to elections and characters so believable that Gessen has probably taken more than a few qualities from his own neurotic friends. (Case in point, on the back flap, fellow n+1 critic and budding novelist, Benjamin Kunkel, cheekily describes Gessen’s prose as “Fitzgeraldian,” which it’s not.)

All the Sad Young Literary Men

AUTHOR: Keith Gessen
PAGES: 242
PRICE: $24.95

“All the Sad Young Literary Men” is the story of Sam, Mark and Keith, three regular guys whose stories kind of intertwine and kind of don’t. Sam is obsessed with Israel and writing the next big “Zionist epic” as his Google search results dwindle with every passing day, while Mark veers toward the heavy realm of Russian literature and Internet porn. Keith (not much of a stretch to imagine him as an alter-ego for the Russian-born author) has a sharp passion for politics and a failed engagement. And all three are horribly confused about women and relationships. Even though their literary pursuits rank highest on their lofty list of goals and are the source of much stress and frustration as they attempt to make their name in the scholastic sphere, their relationships (or lack thereof) are truly the meat and potatoes of the story.

Sam, who has been forced to abandon his epic novel and pay back his advance, travels to Israel, is disappointed by the absence of tanks and gunfire, and can’t stop thinking about a girl he’s slept with, a sex columnist named Katie. Recently divorced Mark dates his dream woman, witty Celeste and a former student, fresh-faced Gwyn, at the same time; he just can’t handle all the pressure. Keith reminisces about his ex-fiancée, Jillian, and a past roommate’s ex-girlfriend, the Vice President’s daughter Lauren. (We assume he means Al Gore, because the book places itself right in the messy midst of the 2000 presidential elections and likes to play the guessing game of “Fiction or Truth?”)

Their stories never mingle, besides the common themes that link Mark, Sam and Keith together: disillusionment, hopelessness, anxiety, responsibility, and, of course, love. The fact that a get-together never actually takes place is disappointing to the reader, because throughout the entire book you wonder if these guys will hook up to commiserate over some cheap beer and quit overanalyzing everything. None of the sad young men are overtly likable, either, so it’s hard to feel sorry for them when their pretty paramours are breaking their hearts.

That’s not to say that “All the Sad Young Literary Men” is a complete waste of time, because it’s not. It’s so steeped in our current culture that the stories could be taking place right now on any college-town street corner; only the faces and ambitions are shifted. These are men who spend hours in Starbucks, obsessively check their Google search engine results, and discover the ins and outs of Internet dating. Gessen could very well have been sitting in a curbside café observing the words and actions of real-life literary men. They’re just like your griping grad student friends.

Gessen has probably taken a page or two verbatim from his own literary life and it shows, because his observations are too spot-on for the novel to be anything but a roman à clef. For a first novel, “All the Sad Young Literary Men” would hold its own triumphantly against the toughest of dissertation committees.

For those of you nearing the end of your tenures at this fine institution of higher learning, perhaps “All the Sad Young Literary Men” will ring true to you. As a young literary woman, however, I found the novel to be too much “Sex and the City Goes to Harvard and Meets Woody Allen” to completely enjoy. Maybe I haven’t lived enough yet, or eaten enough ramen noodles. If you dropped into Wilson Library I’m sure you’d find a hundred more sad young literary men with similar stories to share.