All The Sad Young Menshevik Men

There are a bunch of debut novels coming out right now by youngish literati already known to me from blogs or lit journals: Mark Sarvas, Keith Gessen, Nathaniel Rich, Ed Park (who Sarah Weinman calls “wonderful and giddy”). I don’t know if I’ll have time to read all these books, but I was happily surprised by a breakout novel from among this number: All The Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen.

How can I not like this book? It’s a story about college-educated heterosexual male Jewish New Yorkers scrounging with hearts wide open for paychecks, love and, more than anything else, a path to peace in the Middle East.

The main characters in this book are all obsessed, absolutely obsessed, with global politics. One plumbs the contorted history of the Russian Revolution for meaning, another visits Jenin in the West Bank and shares a moving moment with a new Palestinian friend, and another writes an angry book about George W. Bush (it’s called The Damage Done) and now contemplates personal ethics (the most difficult kind of all) while trying to figure out his next move. It’s a charming portrait of people who remind me very much of myself about half a generation ago, when I was as old as these characters (luckily, since then I have found paychecks and have found true love, though the path to peace in the Middle East remains elusive as hell).

Keith Gessen is previously known as the editor of N+1 magazine, and I like this book more than I like that magazine. When Gessen writes directly about politics he tends to strangle himself in his own pessimism. But when he sketches portraits of himself and his friends strangling themselves in political nonsense, we are able to see the self-deprecating humor that can only mix uneasily with the declarative mode of expression.

Gessen also puts his close identification with Harvard University (where he went to school) into ironic play in All The Sad Young Literary Men. As Jews and Ivy League graduates, these characters must feel themselves doubly “chosen” (and thus certainly bound to disappoint their high expectations, whatever these expectations might be). They are also obsessed with fear of their youth slipping away. Anxiety is certainly this novel’s top note.

But does it scan? Yes, and that’s probably why the book seems to be gaining a following even among readers who are not Jewish male Harvard-educated New Yorkers. To the extent that this novel brings up serious issues, I’m sure this is a good thing. I’m not saying I’d like to read a whole lot of novels like this one — one per decade would probably suit me fine. But I breezed through this book with much recognition and much enjoyment. Here’s a little Sartre-esque passage I particularly like:

When you are twenty years old, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, what you want from people is that they tell you about you. When you are twenty, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, you watch the world for the way it watches you. Do people laugh when you make a joke, do they kiss you when you lean into them at a party? Yes? Aha — so that’s who you are. But these people themselves laughing and not-laughing, kissing and not-kissing, they themselves are young, and you begin to think, if you’re twenty or twenty-one, when you are young, that these people are not to be trusted, your contemporaries, your screwed-up friends and girlfriends — that it’s not because of you that they kissed you, but because of them, something about them, those narcissists, whereas you were asking about you, what did they think of you? Now you have no idea. This is why it’s so important to meet your heroes while you are young, so they can tell you.

* * * * *

Debut novels by Mark Sarvas and Keith Gessen: two for two. But how do they stack up?

Gessen has better cover art, and characters I relate to more (though I only went to a state school). Sarvas has the stronger laugh lines, I think, and the subtler flights of prose. Now let’s see how far I get with Nathaniel Rich and Ed Park, if I have any time left at all to read this Spring.

3 Responses

  1. Gessen gave me a copy of this
    Gessen gave me a copy of this when he was in LA. He was a super guy, enthusiastic and intelligent. I like n+1, and like I said, Keith is a fantastic person. The kind of guy I would want to have as a pal. The idea of the book appealed to me – and I am still jealous of that title – I wanted to and expected to love the novel.

    But I did not. The characters were just too obsessed with politics, too neurotic, too… well, I’ll just say it… too stereotypically New York for my tastes.

    The book is very well-written, and the story is constructed well. My objections to it are all personal and subjective. It’s a good book that I simply didn’t enjoy, but would recommend to anyone who likes Philip Roth. In fact, I passed it along to a friend who loves Roth, and he loved Gessen’s novel.

  2. Funny, Cal, I saw much more
    Funny, Cal, I saw much more Philip Roth in Mark Sarvas’s novel. To me sexual anxiety is at the core of Roth’s work, and I didn’t see that as a key part of this book. Interesting to hear your reaction, though, thanks.

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