Required Reading

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen, A Guest Post

All the Sad Young Literary Men is literal in its title and literary in its aspirations. The novel chronicles the lives of three young men who you will have a really tough time telling apart. When Gessen wrote All the Sad Young Literary men, he claimed he was attempting to revive a style of writing about young, White, urban, hyper-educated men in a way that hadn’t been seen since F. Scott Fitzgerald. Whether or not you agree that his subjects are over or under-covered, it’s clear that Gessen has succeeded in his Fitzgerald imitation.

The novel’s greatest achievement is its translation of a Fitzgerald-esque style to contemporary fiction. Gessen writes about bloggers, Harvard jerks, and working day jobs the same way Fitzgerald writes about lawn parties, impotence and post WWI life in the roaring 20s. The Fitzgerald influence is clear from the title to the subjects to the style of storytelling. It’s refreshing to read about a contemporary age – the 90s in this case – in a voice that sounds familiar, but takes its cues and structure from 1920s literature. The characters, unfortunately, are less interesting.

Sam, Mark and Keith all go to Ivy League universities, keep the company of other intellectuals, have trouble with women, sign book deals (or don’t), and feel insecure about themselves from the beginning to the end. They are all connected by a lowest common denominator (education), and don’t interact much besides.

If the characters seem like three versions of the same person, it’s because they are. Gessen barely manages to fictionalize the three facets of his own personality: the Harvard graduate, the writer, and the Russophile. Each takes a slightly different path, and spends a large time considering what could have been. Incidentally, the whole novel feels like Gessen himself is wondering what could have been had he followed the whims of his inner Sam, Mark or Keith. This is narcissistic to be sure, but many can relate to these themes, and in its chronicle of a certain sebset of society, the book is a triumph.

The writing is at times labyrinthine, but rarely obtuse. Gessen has a roundabout way of making his points, but he gets there eventually. This is something I can identify with and therefore appreciate, though I understand if it’s not everyone’s slice of cheesecake. 

The book is very personal, and very quiet. Conflict is kept to a minimum, but that doesn’t keep characters from fretting about everything. That is to say, nothing really happens. Relationships form and dissolve, egos rise and fall, transcontinental flights are taken and don’t seem to go anywhere. By the end of the novel, I don’t know the characters much more than when I started. Despite this, the lessons each character learns on their respective journeys to nowhere are insightful and worth the price of entry.

Those in the mood for a traditional, yet interesting story about the lives of young white intellectuals will enjoy this book, provided they do not also like tidy endings. Though the characters can go from insufferable to underdogs in the same sentence, there is heart here that is worth exploring, even if you can’t immediately relate.

Blake Fields is a literary omnivore and home improvement enthusiast. He spends his free time looking for internet deals, and supporting his local library. Find him in the New Fiction section!

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