Sad Young Literary Men

A year after its publication, I finally got around to reading All the Sad Young Literary Men. The book, by the sharp, insightful N+1 editor and literary critic Keith Gessen, concerns the separate tales of three young men of literary ambition loosely connected by Harvard, New York, and various romantic interests. Each grapples with the same problems of politics and sex, success and money, earnestness and disbelief, with the business of remaking the world and with finding motivation to do, well, anything, really. It is a coming-of-age novel, of sorts, about yearning and failure amongst the well-educated and less well-employed, and one can rather clearly see the influence of Roth, Salinger, Bellow, and Updike, just to name the most obvious forces at work.

The book received mixed reviews, mirroring my own feelings about it. There’s plenty to criticize: The female characters are not well drawn; the three young men are nearly indistinguishable in voice; the stories are generally uneventful, and the few significant events seemed mildly forced; the prose, while clear and occasionally graceful, is not especially rich or noteworthy; the hopeful outlook achieved in the last few pages seems uncharacteristic and more than a little schematic.

Still, I tore through the book in a single day for a reason; it’s a solid read and there’s much to like: amusingly clever passages and knowing descriptions, particularly of sexual frustration and fixation; small bits of business and insights, like when one of the young men stumbles into the house of a well-known literary critic and marvels at the mass of impressive books on his shelves; and in the book’s best chapter, the story of a young American Jew’s visit to the Jenin refugee camp. All the other chapters take place along the East Coast — Maryland, Baltimore, Syracuse, Brooklyn, Manhattan, though the locations are less important than the three protagonists; the book really takes place inside their heads. It is their rhythms of thought with which the book is most concerned, and, unsurprisingly, the same is true for the young men, for whom mildly neurotic self-examination is a thoroughly ingrained way of life.

What to make of such inward indulgence? I found this trait understandable, being prone to it myself, but others were less forgiving. For me, it was less important that this trio of aspiring literary boys be traditionally “likable” — I’ve never cared much about whether or not fiction meets that arbitrary demand — only that they were each a little funny, a little sad, and more or less recognizable. In this respect, I believe the book succeeded. I saw in them — or perhaps in Gessen, given how similar the characters are, and the way each resembles the author (indeed, one is even named Keith, and the Keith chapters are related in the first person) — familiar strands of confusion and desire, drive and apathy, goodness and narcissism, cynicism and hope. That it accurately replicates the mundane mental routines and emotional textures of many contemporary post-collegiate intellectual strivers is both the book’s greatest strength and most significant weakness. The familiar feeling I got reading of its characters’ trivial travails was comforting, but it was neither challenging nor provocative; it showed me only what I already knew.

But I felt something else, too, not only in the book’s pages, but in myself, a sense shared, I’m sure, by the thousands of aspiring literary connoisseurs who also picked it up, scouting one of their highly regarded peer’s creations: a gnawing anxiety, a (somewhat pathetic, perhaps) existential worry that Gessen’s debut, a fine but probably unexceptional novel, is not merely familiar for the characters it portrays, but also for the words it employs, for the stories it develops, for the ideas it engages as well as for those it doesn’t. I worried, in other words, that it was frighteningly similar to what I might write, given time and opportunity, and that, perhaps worse, it represents all anyone of my generation might ever write, that even at our best, we are all doomed to endlessly examine and criticize and comfort ourselves with our own reflections.