Spectacles, Autumn, and the Sad Young Literary Heart
All the Sad Young Literary Men: A Fiction William Heinemann, 2008 256 pages £12.99 ISBN 978-0434017614
In Isaac Babel’s story, ‘How It Was Done in Odessa’, a bookish young Jewish boy asks an old man how the local mob boss achieved his greatness. For a boy like you to understand a boss like him, the old man replies, you must imagine you are a different sort of person:
Forget for a while that you have spectacles on your nose and autumn in your heart. Quit raising hell on your writing desk and stuttering in public. Imagine for a moment that you raise hell out on the street, and you stutter on paper. You’re a tiger, a lion, a cat. If you spend the night with a Russian woman, you’ll leave her satisfied.
Keith Gessen’s debut book is about all the sad young literary men with spectacles on their noses and autumn in their hearts. It is about young men who want to be told how things are done, who cannot tear themselves away from raising hell on their writing desks any more than they can tear themselves away from who they are. They long to leave women satisfied—and they fail, more often than not.
Gessen, the founding editor of n+1 magazine, melds memoir and fiction by folding elements of his own life into three fictional twenty-something selves: Keith, a Harvard-educated political journalist and the son of Russian immigrants; Sam, an Israel-infatuated temp worker bent on writing the great Zionist novel; and Mark, a divorced doctoral student of history composing and decomposing in Syracuse. Marooned in early adulthood, the three anxious bachelors of arts subsist somewhere between becoming ‘great’ men and becoming nothing at all. Theirs are not portraits of artists as young men, for these young men do not produce art. Rather, the book is comprised of the portraits of non-artists, of wannabe artists and enthusiasts, of a species of voracious, intellectual parasite on the rump of society’s laureates: a breed known as literary men.
Though All the Sad Young Literary Men may be a novel in a formal sense, it is not traditionally novelistic. Keith, Sam, and Mark never meet. Their three stories appear autonomously and coalesce into what Gessen calls ‘a fiction’—codeword for a triptych of portraits that stands in for a novel. The three protagonists emerge in remarkable full-colour, while the supporting actors around them shed light as appropriate, but ultimately remain out-of-reach. Because Gessen’s three ‘hi-def’ characters never meet, the key interactions of the book pit convincing characters against ephemeral side-puppets, a chiaroscuro treatment that makes Gessen’s portraits glow but does little for the book’s overall effect.
The result is something like eating three appetizers for dinner in place of a single main course, a risky trade-off accepted knowingly by its instigator. In the case of All the Sad Young Literary Men, it is a trade-off well executed, but nonetheless a trade-off: Gessen deliberately forsakes the kind of character interaction and cohesiveness of plot that we expect in exchange for eulogising a particular type of person in the throes of a particular moment. He is not after the plight of one man, but rather that of an entire time-lapsed species of young men, a stuttering, un-amassed collective of spectacled young noses and autumn-filled hearts. And like any brilliant eulogist, he interlaces sadness and hilarity to deliver a sparkling homage.
Gessen flags this intent from page one. The title proclaims to be about all the sad young literary men, when in fact the book is about three, young literary men who all happen to resemble Gessen. In light of Gessen’s purpose, however, the disparity makes sense. Though they never meet, Keith, Sam, and Mark bleed into one another as time progresses because there is an element of universality to their predicaments. For the young literary readers among us, their stories become a playful riff on an all too familiar life—Gessen strikes close to home by reinventing his story in the image and likeness of the sad young literary everyman. Twisting intellectual snobbery and pop-culture savvy (the very breed of prose that appeals to sad, young, literary comrades in arms), he writes something uncommon into a book of common despairs.
The most striking feature of All the Sad Young Literary Men is a vicious anxiety that consumes Keith, Sam, and Mark. These young men may not stutter in reality like Babel’s young boy, but they certainly stutter metaphorically, anxiously stammering through their twenty-something lives.
This pervasive anxiety seeps into Gessen’s prose style. Fretful dialogue propels the narrative at a panicky clip. Gessen’s remarkable feel for cadence allows the narrative, pockmarked by side-comments of all persuasions, to meander and then sprint, often descending from Babel to babble to psychobabble in one anxious exhale. Paragraph-long sentences funnel themselves into single-word exclamations:
He did not love rum, but he didn’t mind it, and then, standing in the kitchen, under the bare fluorescent light, after a very bad week, a week during which his hopes of Celeste evaporated, during which his dissertation, while not stalling exactly, certainly did not progress, and in fact began to seem slightly ridiculous—during which the entire project, the sometimes utopian project, of Mark’s life began to look like it was going simply to fail—well, Mark made a kind of decision. He said to Leslie: ‘Shot?’
Gessen peppers the prose heavily with jeering, American pop-culture references—‘with the collapse of the discipline of history into Antiques Roadshow, history of social trends, history of the spoon, these department potlucks were pretty much all they had’—and his capacity to extrapolate the commonplace into academic metaphor makes for witty quips: ‘she had such control of tone, in her text messages, she was the Edith Wharton of text-messaging.’ He even uses J.Crew as a verb. But for all his beautiful sarcasm and side commenting, Gessen seldom lets go of his tight grip on the story to step back as a narrator, rarely going beyond casual lexicon or delving into meditation. His voice keeps with the voices of his characters, which limits the sophistication of the prose, but also charms us with its honesty.
Gessen’s young men experience anxieties of varying sorts—first and foremost an anxiety of a certain age, but also a corresponding anxiety of action. Keith, Sam, and Mark share an intense uneasiness borne out by the ominous creep of their twenties. Their lives circulate around disappointment and self-doubt, and yet they operate under a fleeting inkling of a future that could be different. The young men enjoy life like it is a gap year, all the while worrying that their gap year could evolve unknowingly and without warning into the dreaded gap life. ‘He was getting to be a certain age, he thought,’ the narrator says of Sam. ‘It was the age when his never to be written masterpieces had begun to outweigh the masterpieces he was still going to write.’
The ‘literary’ element of Gessen’s ‘literary men’ indicates a certain bystander status: these young men know how to think, but when is the thinking to stop and the action to begin? A graduate student in Russian history at Syracuse, Mark studies the Russian Revolution, focusing on the Mensheviks, whom Lenin called ‘professors of revolution’ instead of revolutionaries. ‘The Mensheviks were wonderful intellectual people, but they didn’t make it,’ Mark says. Instead, Lenin and the Bolsheviks made it, and Mark comes to respect Lenin for his ability to act. After all, Lenin did not share the destiny of Karl Liebknecht, the German who tried to launch a revolution in 1919, but wound up tortured and shot. Leon Trotsky’s line sums it up: ‘Sometimes you end up like Lenin, and other times you end up like Liebknecht.’
The space between the doers and the done for, between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, Lenin and Liebknecht, speaks to the conundrum of action that afflicts each character in this book. They may become epic like Lenin, die trying like Liebknecht, or even fail to get started like the Mensheviks. That is to say, Keith, Sam, and Mark repeatedly face the question: are you a tiger, a lion, a cat, a creature with nine lives that pounces on opportunity with carnal ambition? Or are you busy raising hell on your writing desk—thinking, reading, pontificating, and paralysed by the autumn in your heart?
Like Liebknecht, Isaac Babel was killed before he could finish his ‘life’s work’. In 1940 the NKVD arrested Babel, one of the most brilliant writers of the early twentieth century, took him to the basement of Lubyanka in Moscow, and shot him. ‘They didn’t let me finish’ were his last words to his wife. In ‘Isaac Babel’, Gessen’s best chapter, a college-age Keith memorialises Babel’s unjust execution in a drunken speech, which he delivers to other inebriated college students: ‘They didn’t let him finish!’ ‘Don’t let them not let you finish! Finish! Finish while you can!’ Keith yells. ‘My speech made no sense. Everyone cheered.’ In the context of the book’s pervasive ‘anxiety of expiration’, however, the speech makes perfect sense. Each of the young men in the book feels that his freshness could spoil any moment, without warning, long before his idealised future has come to pass. Unlike most young men their age, Keith, Sam, and Mark spend their twenties grasping for an epic—for epic lives, novels, careers, loves—but as they grow older, the potential for realising those romantic epics begins to expire, or so it seems. Unlike Babel, ‘No one would ever arrest me at my house, take me to the basement of Lubyanka, and shoot me in the back of the head,’ Keith knows, and yet he also realises that he may very well expire of his own accord. That, it seems, is an equally terrifying thought. For Babel expiration means real death, but for Keith, it means living death—a life spoiled, curdled, and soured like expired milk.
For Gessen, e-death also symbolises this anxiety about living expiration, albeit in a more light-hearted timbre. Sam realises his Google is shrinking while working a temp job at Fidelity. He understands that the dwindling number of Google hits to his name speaks to ‘a larger failing’, but ‘to see it quantified… to see it numerically confirmed… it was cruel’. Sam had once been able to reconfirm his virile existence through his Google, back in the heady days when he had a book deal to write the great Zionist novel (despite speaking no Hebrew, which to him looks like ‘Tetris pieces’). Having plunged from 300 to 22 hits, Sam’s disappearing Google sends him into a panic. He calls headquarters and lowers his voice: ‘Look,’ he says, ‘My Google is shrinking.’
‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about that, sir. Maybe, if you don’t mind my saying, you need to do something notable. Write something. Start a blog.’
‘Look, I tried that. Don’t you think I tried that? I’m calling because I thought maybe you could shift the algorithm a little.’
‘Oh, no, we couldn’t do that.’
‘You couldn’t just up my count a little until I get back on my feet?’
The man laughed an uneasy laugh. You couldn’t do anything in this country anymore, thought Sam, without someone thinking you were a creep. When the man spoke again it was with a forbidding formality.
‘Sir, there’s nothing we can do. I can only suggest writing more. Distinguishing yourself somehow. Google is a fair search engine.’
‘It’s a search engine run by Jews!’ Sam suddenly cried, a little louder than he’d meant to.
Sam’s phallic Google, Keith’s drunken speech about Babel, and Mark’s ruminations on the difference between Lenin and Liebknecht all speak to an anxiety about the moment when the young literary man faces the prospect of either distinguishing himself or extinguishing himself. In order to achieve the former and avoid the latter, the young literary man must act: the world, after all, will not ‘shift the algorithm’ exclusively for him.
Midway through the book, Keith deems himself as neither ‘a mediocrity’ nor ‘a genius’, explaining that if he tries hard enough, he will be fine, but if not, he will fall through the cracks. It is this ‘above-averageness’ that attracts all three young men to the literary world, a place where even the most qualified aspirants risk drowning—somewhere in the deep end between mediocrity and genius.
The title of the book, a play on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s All the Sad Young Men, suggests that Gessen’s book addresses dilemmas similar to those Fitzgerald found compelling, albeit focusing on a different type of young man. We find clear connections between Gessen and Fitzgerald: they both strike something of an ironic tone, they both model stories on themselves, they both concentrate on smart, young men growing up and struggling to get women, and they both effuse a certain undeniable Americana. But for sure, Keith, Sam, and Mark are no Gatsby. Their pretentiousness and pretensions to greatness come not from where or how they summer, not from their rich or powerful parents, not from their success with women, but rather from their intellectual prowess and engagement—from the spectacles on their noses and the autumn in their hearts. They are literary men: they are overeducated and overambitious; they drop Heidegger and Foucault; they are Jewish, secular; and they masturbate, watch pornography, and poke fun at Zionism. That is to say, if Gessen’s characters come from a lineage in literary history, they hardly descend from the Jay Gatsbys of American fiction, despite the referential title. They come, more probably, from the Nathan Zuckermans.
Philip Roth once said that Zuckerman, like Babel’s young protagonist, had ‘spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart’ but also ‘blood in his penis’. The same goes for Gessen’s young men. While Keith, Mark, and Sam pump autumn through their hearts, they also pump a trademark Rothian ‘blood in the penis’: much like Zuckerman, they exhibit a sexualised young man’s hysteria, a preoccupation with sex and self-satisfaction of many kinds, and, it almost goes without saying, pervasive angst that knows itself to be overblown—anxiety of influence, of action, of age. We find Roth’s trademark low-comedy hysterics and anxious use of autobiography deeply ingrained in Gessen’s prose.
Like many young authors who have come out from under Roth’s defiled hanky, Gessen charms his reader with a capacity to navigate handily between Google and Hegel, Lewinsky and Kerensky, fellatio and Holocaust revisionism, all without missing a beat. This ‘low-comedy, highbrow’ humour may be part of ‘a real bourgeois genre’, as one of Gessen’s characters says of her sex column writing, but it is also an inappropriateness appropriate to convey much of modern Americana. The humorous mix of the ‘literary’ and the ‘low-brow’, perfected by Gessen and his contemporaries, seems the logical extension of Roth, the man who brought masturbation to the American canon with Portnoy’s Complaint.
But this raises a pressing question that hovers over Gessen’s debut. Will this sort of book—couched in cultural specificities and highbrow gutter humour, and bedecked with photos of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton—last? Gessen’s profile suggests that, much like his characters, he hopes to produce something lasting and meaningful (after all, he invokes Babel and Fitzgerald, contributes to The New Yorker, and edits a promising new intellectual journal). But one would be right to suggest that despite Gessen’s pedigree, his undeniable talent as a author, and his book’s serious value, his references to The Antiques Roadshow and Britney (no surname required) might expire just like his characters’ ambitions, requiring lengthy footnotes for our children to understand. Where Gessen ultimately will fall on the scatter gram between mediocrity and genius will depend very much on his next book—a bona fide novel, we can hope—which given the talent established in All the Sad Young Literary Men, seems poised to strike a higher pitch. If, in fact, that is what Gessen wants.
This is not to say that Gessen’s method of humour and culture-specific context strip All the Sad Young Literary Men entirely of durable literary merit. His blending of desperation and comedy, his reworking of the traditional Bildungsroman’s themes, his flouting of the archetypes of novelistic form, and his sometimes-shrieking, sometimes-saddening candour make this a book to read and remember. Most striking, perhaps, is Gessen’s autobiographical refashioning. He narrates Keith in the first person (they hardly share a forename by coincidence), and Sam and Mark appear in third person, though often through a similar memoirist’s voice. This makes for the book’s coup de grace: Gessen applies the accoutrements of a time-specific, self-reflexive memoir to the timeless phenomenon of spectacled, autumn-hearted young men.
A critic once called Fitzgerald’s writing ‘a continuous exercise of the autobiographical impulse’, designed to depict ‘a social character, a national type that fascinated and repelled him’. So too did Roth use his autobiography as an aestheticised, all-access pass to a national ‘type’. And readers consistently equate the bespectacled young boy with Babel himself, because like his epigones, Babel manipulated his autobiography in the name of a marginalised everyman (or ‘everyboy’ as it were). Gessen, who like Roth combines autobiographical refashioning with humour and hysteria, keenly picks up on this tradition, and though he is hardly a Roth, Babel, or Fitzgerald yet, he commands us to wait and see. Such expectations will reify for Gessen the pressure experienced by his characters, imploring him to find a way to re-don his spectacles, and raise even more impressive hell on his auspicious writing desk for next time.