Keith Gessen, All the Sad Young Literary Men (Viking Press, 2008)
At the end of the first story in Keith Gessen’s debut collection, All the Sad Young Literary Men, we encounter a curious photograph. The photo captures Bill Clinton and Al Gore, youthful and vigorous, lifetimes away from Lewinsky and the 2000 election. Clinton’s smiling face leans toward Gore’s, as if he has just made some jovial remark, and Gore smiles in response. Each man gazes out beyond the photo’s frame with all the confidence and hope that the newly elected, upstart duo inspired back then.
The photo signifies an image of the 1990s with which, Gessen’s book continually struggles: this is a collection of stories interested in the dialectic of the past and the present, idealism and cynicism, personal and public history, and of innocence and the ambiguous attainment of knowledge.
Gessen, co-founder of the cultural journal n+1, centers his collection on three would-be intellectuals making a mess of their lives while desperately falling through their twenties and into that veritable graveyard beyond 29: Mark is a doctoral student writing on the Russian Revolution at Syracuse, Keith is a burgeoning political writer, and Sam is attempting to write the great Zionist novel.
Gessen’s title echoes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story collection All the Sad Young Men, and a sentiment expressed by Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, who declares that we (Americans) “beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past,” no matter how we struggle against the tides of History.
Gessen, our neo-Nick Carraway, indulges our nostalgia for the supposed nirvana of the Clintonian Golden Age—a time when many of us were enjoying it by listening to Nirvana, and, oh well, whatever, never mind about Kosovo and Rwanda. But Gessen’s nostalgia is self-aware, tinged with melancholy and bitterness. As he traces the post-college lives of these aspiring intellectuals following the disappointment of the 2000 election and the subsequent Dark Age of Bush’s presidency, his three young men learn that “life was not simple and not easy; because you did not emerge from your twenties smiley-faced and full of cheer and love for all existence.”
Mark, Keith, and Sam all share similar anxieties, women problems, and life experiences, so that they seem more an amalgamation of a single person or “type” (the clef for this near-roman would be Gessen himself) than wholly independent characters. This “type” is male, well-educated, idealistically exhausted, mildly-aged, confused, and fearful of failure.
In other words, the three are fairly pretentious and privileged. Part of Gessen’s gamble with such characters, who are open to such charges as (take a deep breath) narcissism, solipsism, and sexism, is that they might be lost on those unfamiliar with, and suspicious of, the world of the ivy-beleaguered.
It is no coincidence that the book ends in the election year of 2008, after each of the characters finds some reason to be optimistic about life and the future. A new political stage will soon be set, and this lends Gessen’s players a reason to strut with optimism into the next act. Yet History, as Gessen reminds us, is still waiting patiently in the wings.
Ralph Clare is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.