Photo by Anne Diebel
In his debut novel, Keith Gessen offers a deeply personal and exacting account of growing up in one’s 20s and relationships in New York.
Love and other indoor sports
To great effect, n+1 editor mines his life for material
All the Sad Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen
Viking, 256 pp., $24.95
By Sarah Norris
Keith Gessen didn’t answer any of my questions about love, and neither did his book.
No, that’s not exactly true. If I came away from our interview feeling dissatisfied, it didn’t stem from his lack from response, but the fact that his debut novel left me unnerved. A deeply personal and exacting account of growing up in one’s 20s, the book presents all of the messy and uncomfortable complications that entails: romantic entanglements and wild ambition, financial insecurity, peripheral bourgeois depression, and a hunger for connection and purpose larger than oneself. In this period of life during which the gravest responsibility is often to protect and revel in one’s own happiness, Mr. Gessen mines for surprising moments of clarity and loyalty, illuminating the universal desire to find a home in the world and to be great. His characters possess such relatable flaws and desires that identification to them qualifies as cringe-worthy.
A single woman in my 20s who has encountered situations similar to those faced by Mr. Gessen’s characters, I had pages of scribbled notes and questions when I finished reading most of them about love, specifically the male perspective of romance as pursued—or not—by the protagonists. I approached Mr. Gessen hoping he could enlighten me by revealing what lay behind the story. In considering the undefined relationships between men and women in the book, it’s evident that their encounters are facilitated and also made more complicated by easy access to email and cell phones. Thus, I was curious if Mr. Gessen himself ever takes the time to write letters. “No,” he said.
“What do you think it is we’re attracted to in people?” I wondered.
“I have no idea,” he replied, laughing. “There’s a litany of cynical answers, but I reject them.”
An established cultural and literary critic as well as a founding editor of n+1 magazine, Mr. Gessen, 33, has written—and been written about—extensively in the last several years. Born in Russia, he grew up in Massachusetts, attended Harvard, and then moved to New York at age 22 with a wife, from whom he is now divorced. His novel centers around three characters—Mark, Sam and Keith—who stumble from their Ivy League educations into the grim realities of temping and dating without accountability. The story begins in 1998 as Mark and his wife settle in Queens, budgeting 70 dollars a week for food and transportation. “To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little, but to be young—to be young was divine.”
Of a similar period in his life, Mr. Gessen said, “I had friends who were poets and writers and all of us would sit around. We didn’t really know how to become things that we wanted to become. I thought we’d all end up selling out, becoming permanent temporaries.” The impetus for the book was his desire, eight years later, “to see what would happen to these people.”
Sam, meanwhile, receives an advance for a sprawling nonfiction book, which he subsequently fails to produce. In order to pay back the publisher, he is forced to return to his office job. His half-starts and stops at research on Israel are interrupted by an obsessive panic at his computer, fueled by the fear that his “Google is shrinking,” meaning that the number of hits his name draws up is decreasing. Hysterical, he calls Google to complain, lying that he “was in the mid-300s before. Now I’m at, like, 40.”
Unlike the chapters about Mark and Sam, the ones about Keith, also a writer, unfold in the first person, though Mr. Gessen explains that this character bears the least resemblance to him. “I called him Keith because I knew people would assume it was me. He has a tone, but it happens not to be the one in which I personally conduct myself.”
Rejecting the widely held glossy and hegemonic notion of what growing up means, Mr. Gessen describes it simply as “a process of deciding you’re responsible to other people.” He names relationships as the central subject of his work, because “the sorts of relationships you find yourself in tell you where you are.” His honesty about the flailing and missed communication that transpires is refreshing. As in life, romantic encounters here typically begin with big explosions and attraction. They don’t end in spectacular car crash fashion, but in a series of pathetic and muted wheezes. But instead of merely highlighting failings, Mr. Gessen imbues these relationships with a refreshing blend of self-deprecating humor and intelligence. In the middle of being turned down by a girl who says she likes to have fun, Mark exclaims, “Are you kidding? I love fun! There’s a whole chapter on fun in my dissertation.”
I read an interview with the actress Kristen Scott Thomas years ago in which she described being approached by a stranger outside her apartment in Paris. The man said only this: “Thank you for the emotion.” And really, isn’t that the attention that should be paid to successful fiction and film?
Mr. Gessen couldn’t answer my queries about love because the specifics of this plot—as in everyone’s plot—are beside the ultimate point of novels, which is sometimes not the conclusion itself, but the process of inspiring questions, and learning which ones to ask. Noteworthy for its perfectly rendered descriptions of lonesomeness and fumbling, this is an important book that captures the raw emotion and turbulence of being in one’s 20s. All the Sad Young Literary Men marks one of the most immediate and perceptive novels about contemporary single life in the 21st century, and certainly relationships in New York, published this year.
To read Keith Gessen’s essays and reviews, and find upcoming events, visit nplusonemag.com.