"Pity,” said Stephen Dedalus, one of the twentieth century’s original sad young literary men, is “the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer.” Three such sufferers are featured in Keith Gessen’s first book, All the Sad Young Literary Men. Mark is a fifth-year graduate student, divorced and stranded in Syracuse attempting to finish his dissertation on the Russian Revolution. Keith is a Harvard-educated political writer, separated from his longtime girlfriend and devastated by the outcome of the 2000 election. Sam, a fledgling Boston-based freelancer, aspires to write the great Zionist novel. The three of them, as representatives of sad young literary men everywhere, are anxious, narcissistic, and often unlovable. They treat women poorly and, despite their supposed concern with world-historical events, seem incapable of escaping the narrow confines of their self-regard. Are young men and problems like these—emotional breakups, incipient career frustrations, the failure of history to conform to the wishes of its potential benefactors in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Cambridge, Massachusetts—worthy of our pity?
Your answer will go some way toward determining how you’ll feel about Gessen’s slim but penetrating book. Gessen is best-known as a founding editor of n+1, a New York–based political and literary magazine that appeared on the scene nearly four years ago promising merely to revitalize American letters. He is less self-assured as a fiction writer than as an essayist. His characters and settings can be sketchy, and the whole enterprise threatens to tilt into the mix of memoir and cultural criticism that is n+1’s specialty. Gessen could have better differentiated Keith, Mark, and Sam, who seem to share a composite outlook. And his interspersal of world-historical events (the 2000 election, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Russian Revolution) throughout the personal lives of his characters (“So why was Mark always ending up like Liebknecht?”) is a gambit that will grow old for readers long before Mark concludes that such parallels are of “limited use” for deciphering his own affairs.
But Gessen does have something to say, even many things, about the terrain he covers, and that is not always the case for first outings. All the Sad Young Literary Men candidly explores life as lived by aspiring East Coast intellectuals. Readers may be reminded of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children or Jeff Hobbs’s The Tourists, but Gessen treats his culture-industry aspirants with more sophistication than either of those authors, and unlike Messud, he never condescends to his characters. This is not to claim—and this connects his effort with the earlier novels—that Keith, Mark, and Sam ever transcend their status as “aspirants.” These are not Bellow’s or Roth’s or even DeLillo’s “intellectuals”: They lack confidence and purpose; they obsess not about ideas, but about whether they are going to have enough ideas. As readers, we are not convinced that they are not shams (they are not convinced themselves).
Yet in their self-consciousness and hesitancy, these occasionally trivial men can be united through their suffering with some of what is grave and constant in American life. They grapple with the problems of sex, career, and lifestyle that together make up the problem of one’s twenties, that supposedly beatific period during which you can vote, drink, and live as you please in the big city of your choice. But this does not turn out to be a foolproof recipe for well-being. The postcollege years are wasted trying to figure out where the fun is, and before you know it, you’ve entered that shadowy territory known as the late twenties, ruled by anxiety (I’ve got to start living), guilt (I’m not living enough), and regret (I didn’t live when I had the chance). Keith, Mark, and Sam haven’t made a big enough name for themselves or found the right girls (or found enough girls), and a sense of panic has set in; the best decade of their lives is almost over, and they haven’t done anything.
But they have done some things—one thing they’ve done is moved around . . . a lot. Young adulthood in America is a diaspora, and Gessen, himself a Russian transplant, is most powerful when tracing his twenty-somethings’ shuttling between Baltimore, Cambridge, Syracuse, Brooklyn, and (in Sam’s case) the West Bank. They shuttle through girls, too. And eventually, they shuttle from their early twenties into their late twenties, and then (the horror!) into their thirties. Gessen suggests—and this may be sentimental, or it may be true—that each move necessitates a tearing away of the self: After one unfruitful road trip from his parents’ house in Maryland to see a girl in New York, Keith considers “all the people in the world, dragging themselves from old property to new property . . . and arriving, in the end, sawed into pieces.” The problem is America, which is “too large”—it breaks up the people one loves and scatters them, “never to be seen again in one place.” But to move is never fully to move on: Mark thinks of how, “if you walked around America and looked properly, what you saw was a group of wandering disaggregated people, torn apart and carrying with them, in their hands, like supplicants, the pieces of flesh they’d won from others in their time.”
Sentiments as grand as these are not quite justified by Keith’s, Mark’s, and Sam’s stories. We would have to spend more time with these characters, and be put through more with them, to understand what really lies beneath their restless striving. In this sense, All the Sad Young Literary Men feels like an outline for a more ambitious project. Let’s hope that it is. For Gessen’s theme at such moments is nothing less than the cost, in our times, of unfettered mobility—and there is no theme more grave or constant in American literature. Young Americans may not be told to “Go west” anymore, but they are told to go somewhere and to keep going. Gessen should continue to follow them on their way.
Jon Baskin is a writer based in Chicago.