three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
By: 
Keith Gessen
user_rating: 
0

A-All the Sad Young Literary MenSet between the late 1990s and today, All the Sad Young Literary Men is Keith Gessen’s first novel, but it is by no means his first successful foray into the literary world. Gessen, who split his adolescence between Russia and the United States, is an accomplished translator of Russian literature and a founding editor of the literary magazine n+1.

The Story: All the Sad Young Literary Men follows three well-educated, painfully self-aware protagonists as they struggle to find meaning in life after college. Sam, Mark, and Keith overthink every move they make, which turns picking up women at a local bar into an anxiety-fraught activity on a par with finding one’s calling in life. While Sam ponders his fading dream of writing "the great Zionist novel" and Keith broods over Al Gore’s inexplicable election loss in 2000, Mark works on a never-ending dissertation about the doomed Russian Mensheviks—a group of intellectuals who lost out to the much more active (and violent) Bolsheviks. Like the Mensheviks, Sam, Mark, and Keith must eventually decide whether to devote their lives to mere rumination—or to action.
Viking. 242 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670018554

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Gessen’s] achingly comic command of the hopes, vanities, foibles and quandaries of his peers has produced something better than fashionably maneuvered satire. It is irony (of a rare cosmopolitan sort) that this Russian-born writer brings to the New York scene, a pond that takes itself to be the ocean." Richard Eder

New York Review of Books 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Beginning with its risky yet playful title, All the Sad Young Literary Men is a rueful, undramatic, mordantly funny, and frequently poignant sequence of sketch-like stories loosely organized by chronology and place and the prevailing theme of youthful literary ideals vis-à-vis literary accomplishment. … All the Sad Young Literary Men is a post-postmodernist work of fiction in which spiritual impotence is the great subtextual theme, even as sexual promiscuity is the norm." Joyce Carol Oates

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Complications abound, and some of them are the book’s fault, but Gessen’s style is good-natured and ripe enough to allow a satisfying sweetness to exist in these characters as they journey around the carnival of their own selfishness." Andrew O’Hagan

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Gessen] extracts a full measure of fun from the proclivity of these smart young guys to intellectualize everything to death. … [H]e has a deft satiric touch and a nice feel for irony." Jonathan Yardley

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"All the Sad Young Literary Men is for the converted, for that person who reads Capek paperbacks on free Sundays and Googles Orwell essays late into the night. … What this book tells about Keith Gessen is that he is out to revive the novel of political commitment, and bring to the bludgeoned Left a bit of lugubrious fun." Roberto Ontiveros

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 1.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s an argument to be made that Gessen is actually satirizing these young men. But satire requires emotional distance and moral ruthlessness—and too much of All the Sad Young Literary Men reads like a love letter to Gessen’s own brainy angst." Christopher Kelly

Critical Summary

Critics generally reacted positively to Gessen’s debut novel (really a set of linked short stories) and agreed that few writers have explored the hopes and fears of the young, urban intelligentsia with equal wit and precision. However, as the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram review claims, one’s affection for the novel seems to depend on one’s ability to stomach Gessen’s narcissistic and self-absorbed protagonists—that is, if one can even tell them apart. While some critics found the men’s endless, self-centered ruminations tiring at times, most felt that Gessen’s ironic tone made the journey into these characters’ psyches a pleasant one. And as Joyce Carol Oates opined, sad, young, literary men are not the only ones who must grapple with "the disparity between what one has learned of history and the possibilities of making use of that knowledge in one’s life."