All the Sad Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen
Keith Gessen's novel-in-stories, All the Sad Young Literary Men, is a wry homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's All the Sad Young Men. Where Fitzgerald portrayed the maudlin purposelessness of the overwealthy, Gessen describes the lassitude and neuroses of the overeducated. Harvard, like a trust fund, gives Gessen's young literary men a heightened sense of their own importance that is at odds with the normalcy of their abilities. And while the snarky might say that's a tune more suited to the smallest violin than a novel, Gessen manages to sprinkle charm over these young men as besotted with the grandeur of history as Fitzgerald's were with drink.
In each story, AtSYLM metaphorically mates love pangs with political troubles: For Sam, perpetually failing to write the great Zionist novel, women are like an intifada; for Mark, a graduate student in Russian history, women are dangerous Bolsheviks to his idealistic Mensheviks; and for Keith, the earnest cultural and political observer, women are like writing itself, an activity he watches, worshipfully, from afar. Taken too seriously, this structure would be as demeaning to history as it is to women. But the book remains light and jocular, endearing even in those places where it tries so hard to be funny.
Gessen is coeditor of the capaciously intelligent n+1, a journal that says it "holds no value sacred but the need to rethink every part of our life." Some, I suppose, will be surprised that the editor of a journal with such global ambitions would set them aside to write a modest, humorous novel about the folly of pining after greatness. Yet Gessen does just that with aplomb.
Keith Gessen reads Wed April 30 at Elliott Bay Book Company, 8 pm, free.