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.