All the Sad Young Literary Men, By Keith Gessen

A novel about thirtysomething, overly earnest, literary New Yorkers – sound familiar?
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The Independent Culture

"Write what you know" is a piece of advice helpfully offered to first-time novelists, but often without the crucial corollary: write what you know, by all means, unless it's about a writer trying to write a book.

As an editor of n+1, an American literary magazine with a tendency towards smarty-pants critical theory, Keith Gessen must have come across thousands of submissions from thirtyish Methuselahs, all cataloguing their lives, loves and fear of the blank page; and among his co-editors is Benjamin Kunkel, the author of Indecision, a faux-naif comedy about a smart-mouthed young jobsworth growing into his ethical consciousness. In short, Gessen is perfectly placed to study the white, male, thirtysomething, literary New Yorker in his natural habitat: and this is him writing what he knows.

All the Sad Young Literary Men (positively the last time I can bear to type out that title, but it's either a Scott Fitzgerald homage or a Shirley Bassey one, perhaps both) is a novel in stories, linked together by the vague Harvard background of its three male protagonists and the women who oscillate between them. You'll recognise these guys from elsewhere in contemporary American fiction: over-smart, bad with women in a lit-but-you-know-it sort of way, brooding earnestly over their PhD subjects and the situation in Israel, wearyingly enamoured of bullet-pointed lists and dorky cracks about obscure Russian dissidents.

In Gessen's trek through this increasingly tiresome terrain, there are a couple of new items of anthropological interest, the main one being a picture of Hegel stuck into the text at random to show you what you're in for. Yet there's also a lot of verbose pontificating about simple things. "When you are 20 years old, and 21, and 22, and 23, and 24," observes one character from the vantage of, what, 30, "what you want from people is that they tell you about you." "When you are young," says another, "and you're on your way, and you have everything before you and everyone with you... and you look at all the others with their screwed-up lives and you know you'll do things differently, you know you will, and you do."

There is a lot of faux-sonorous prose about history and literature, much in the manner of a slightly less lispy Adam Thirlwell. ("Red Cavalry made Babel famous. It was the first great Soviet book. Gorky protected him, and he was beloved.") Occasionally the two cross over. "Why was Mark always ending up like Liebknecht?" Gessen writes, after first letting the back of the class know that "Liebknecht was the German communist murdered in prison alongside Rosa Luxemburg after their bid for power failed in 1919." It turns out that Mark has a few problems getting into bed with girls, which is a joke, you see.

Sam goes to Israel and finds himself. ("The Palestinians were idiots. But the Israelis were – well, the Israelis were fuckers.") Mark breaks up with his girlfriend. Keith gets his pregnant, which is, like, a growing experience. Each one of these fairly tiresome characters gets a suspiciously easy ride from the author, and – although certain parts suggest Gessen may yet write a good book about something else – it's hard to see this cramped little novel appealing to many people outside his immediate circle. These Sad Young Literary Men really need to get out more.

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