Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Keith Gessen: All The Sad Young Literary Men

It's hard to tell whether the three protagonists of All The Sad Young Literary Men are separate personalities, or just three installments of the same guy. If all these mad mopes weren't so interchangeable, Keith Gessen's vacant bildungsroman might be able to justify the way its characters continually alienate other people (including their readers), under the guise that they really don't know themselves.


Gessen's novel follows the struggles of three apparently unrelated East Coast twentysomethings. Unmotivated Mark, a poor grad student feeling stifled in Syracuse, spends his research time lingering over Internet porn and wondering why his marriage to a Russian émigré went sour. Restless Keith resents the confines of his home town of Baltimore, and the fiancée he proposed to in a moment of passion when Florida was called for Al Gore. And angry Sam is convinced that his job as a paralegal in Boston is keeping him from writing his great Zionist epic, which he started to prove to himself that he isn't another post-college disappointment. (In perhaps the book's only funny scene, his fretting about his search-engine results, or what he refers to as "my Google," leads him to call technical services and plead with them to manipulate the results.)

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's wealthy Long Islanders, Mark, Keith, and Sam are careless people, but they're hobbled by a complete absence of self-awareness that, while intermittently funny, ends up making them look and behave like assholes. The passions that compel them to describe themselves as "literary" pale in comparison to their pursuit of bragging rights and women. (Often more than one at once.) It isn't enough that they write books; they must be the literariest people who ever picked up a volume of Proust. Yet Gessen pleads for our sympathy, since they're too distracted by the tawdry business of life to write their masterpieces.

They wouldn't have to be likeable if they were interesting; instead, while Gessen can turn a neat phrase, his protagonists aren't people who tempt readers to linger in their presence. Their pretensions override their humorous foibles, and the pity potentially inspired by their myopia becomes irritation, particularly at the frustratingly open ending, which manages to be simultaneously unrealistic and predictable. If it's truly this unbearable to be sad, young, and literary, this next great American whine isn't the cure.