Monday, September 1, 2008

All the Sad Young Literary Men

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen (Viking, 2008) 242 pp.

This is an obvious nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story collection All the sad young men (1926). Fitzgerald wrote about restless, unhappy young men in the Jazz Age navigating the world and their lusts (or so I've derived from my research - the actual book is scarcer than hen's teeth with only one copy available here in the Toronto Reference Library).

In 1926, a New York Times reviewer described Fitzgerald as a chronicler "of the efforts of his sad young men to wrestle beauty and love from the world and the ladies" and this is not an inappropriate description for Gessen's book. Joyce Carol Oates has written a thoughtful review here in the New York Review of Books which has helped put the book in perspective for me describing it's "narcissistic ennui of privileged youth for whom self-flagellation is an art form" (and she liked the book!).

Very consciously, Gessen divides the book into nine stories as did Fitzgerald. The book's alternating chapters revolve around the adventures of three male protagonists, all writers:

>Russian studies graduate student Mark, sexually inept and lonely, toiling in Syracuse, NY trying to finish his dissertation on the Russian revolutionaries, the Mensheviks

>Sam, the reluctant Zionist, whose goal is is to "write the great Zionist novel ... to disentangle the mess of confusion, misinformation, tribal emotionalism, and political opportunism that characterized the Jewish-American attitude toward Israel".

>Keith, a post-modern version of the author himself it seems, lit geek, a member of the chattering classes, a on-line writer and liberal pundit obsessed with former presidential Veep Al Gore (although unnamed here) and his daughter.

The characters sometimes seem to be thinly concealed slivers of the real Keith Gessen: a Harvard graduate, conflicted Jew who feels he does not love Israel "enough", aspiring member of the literati, literary geek ... so it is difficult to distinguish the three characters Sam, Mark and Keith at times. Reviewed by Emily Gould, a frenemy whom he dated, she also mentions that the characters are interchangeable and so they are.

Early in the novel, one of these ambitious characters is told, "You can have anything you want." Is that the trouble here? Is that what paralyzes these children of privilege, the proliferation of choices? The endless possibilities? Because they do seem immobilized by the most everyday concerns from problems to do with sex and women and difficult roommates, mundane struggles with family, career worries, struggles to make more money.

But sometimes the writer's observations are astute and funny. The thing that saves his characters, in my mind, is that they are so inept - hopeless with women, woefully underconfident, socially "retarded", frightened. If they weren't so hopeless they would be intolerable to read about.

And the book does strive to reach another more sophisticated level touching on issues of identity and retaining one's culture, upper middle class anxiety, historical concerns, and a fear of the diminishment of male potency, the world outside the small nucleus that Sam, Mark and Keith inhabit.

Conflicted feelings regarding Israel are a recurrent theme. Can one be a good Jew if you do not support the state of Israel? How much support is too much? Can it be too much for a Jew?

What are the pressures on writers who are trying to create? Are other writers, as Sam says, his "enemies, his nemeses" in the short story "His Google" about a writer's dwindling google hits and his comic attempts to increase them. Touching lightly on Harold Bloom's theory of the "anxiety of influence", he notes that writers live under the burden of trying to compete with all that is written before them. We, as writers, revere and fear the power, the art of other writers. We resent their accomplishments which spur us on to create (or perhaps, at times, immobilize us).

There is a irking self-knowledge in the character at work here too ... a suspicion that despite a Harvard degree one protagonist may not be all that. One character cruelly tells the character Keith, presumably a post-modern version of the author: There's this thing about guys from Harvard ... They think everything is fine, just because they went to Harvard. And for them, you know, it is. Even the most mediocre mediocrity can make a nice life in New York if only he went to Harvard.

The thing that saves Gessen, I feel, is the vulnerability of the male characters although many of the women seem like cartoons - whether they are fierce or wildly funny or passive. If the men were more self-assured the irsilly preoccupations would be insufferable.

In "Sometimes like Liebknecht", Mark compares himself to Karl Liebknecht, a German communist and a comrade of Rosa Luxemburg's, who was murdered in prison during the Russian Revolution. Mark, a professor, a failure with women, who unsuccessfully woos Celeste, his golden girl but ends up with with the unwanted bronze Leslie. He strives to be like Lenin and ends up like Liebknecht he says. And while I really enjoy the little tidbits of Russian history and the analogy is slightly comic but ridiculous - to compare the plight of a murdered radical to your own inept masculine sexual maneuvers is a little disturbing. It smacks of pretension rather than good writing.

I will speak about three or four stores that I did find effective. Something happens with the chapter "Uncle Misha" and the rest of the book ... Gessen becomes more serious, melancholic. It touches a nerve for me: the European immigrant experience, the parent dying of cancer, the ride through Baltimore which reminds me in many ways of my hometown Hamilton. It’s really not so much about the renegade Russian uncle Misha but more about family and the effects of immigration, assimilation, about being unable to assimilate and the bitterness of that realization. It’s about how you can’t go home and that everything changes. The cards are stacked against first generation immigrants and no one knows it better than the children of these immigrants who are torn between two loyalties.

In “Jenin”, Sam travels to the Middle East and stays with a Palestinian family in Jenin, a city in the West Bank. As a Jew, and a sometime reluctant supporter of Israel, Sam waits for the tanks, the Israeli aggression and signs of brutality that he has read so much about. In Jenin he hears of the death of five in Jerusalem on the radio and then is ashamed, horrified, to think that there are some present whose hospitality he has enjoyed and who might be rejoicing at the news. He has not revealed that he is a Jew and when he does so to his new Palestinian friend Ahmed, Ahmed is shocked and touched, moved to tears, to think that this man, a Jew, has traveled to Israel to see for himself what is happening during the Occupation. It is immensely moving and the emotion is largely unspoken.

Hapless Mark re-encounters Celeste in “The Phenomenology of the Spirit” and then courts Gwyn, beautiful and ten years younger. The men in the book always seem to be on the prowl to “upgrade” their girlfriends and wives, dumping seemingly inferior girls for “better” ones. This phenomenon I believe to be universal ... There is a nice little passage about why we are constantly hurting each other in the strange ritual of dating.

Sometimes it reads like a serious book wrapped in a bit of fluff as if the writer is afraid to write about the real issues that concern him. But the "real" issues are interesting ... and so his Gessen's take on them.

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