All the Sad Young Literary Men

KEITH GESSEN

Sad, yes. Literary, if you say so. Young, not even close. Indeed, the defining characteristic of the three 20-something protagonists in Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men — would-be Everymen named Sam, Mark, and, yes, Keith — is how decrepitly old, vaguely pre-Enlightenment, they all seem. Since “literariness” absolves them from wage labor, our post-Harvard heroes spend these pages wandering the American Northeast, collecting the approbations of older male notables and the affections of seemingly interchangeable, lithesome young women. In their worldview, the best women (e.g., “The Vice-President’s Daughter”) are “impressive”; you may copulate with the girl, but the contract’s with her father. Which is to say, what’s so absurdly fascinating and scruffily endearing about Gessen’s debut is how it makes white-male privilege read like identity fiction. Neither trust-fund aristocrats nor bootstrap strivers, these characters sentimentalize a bygone (and likely mythic) intellectual culture, one with commanding gatekeepers whose patronage alone could assure the rise of bright boys from the provinces. And thus the narrative here tends to interrupt stories of career stagnation and romantic embarrassment with strained parallels to Soviet literature or Israeli history — the effect is one less of erudition than petulance: “But don’t you see? I’m smart.” Finally too in love with the idea of ideas to ever have any novel ones of their own, the man-boys in this episodic tale bumble around like latter-day Quixotes, minor nobility born too late, tilting and jostling for affirmation from the old, the dead, the imaginary. Yes, sad.

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