Keith Gessen’s first novel,All the Sad Young Literary Men (Viking), is being scrutinized not just by the reviewers but by new-media gossip merchants. The latter are preoccupied with finding the real-life prototypes of Gessen's characters -- especially the three sad, young, literary ones mentioned in his title.
One of those characters is a political journalist named Keith (clearly the author is asking for trouble) who attends Harvard in the 1990s and expects that Al Gore’s victory in the 2000 presidential election will be a tide lifting all boats, including his own; and so the years after college are especially confusing and unhappy for him. Another, Mark, is a graduate student in Syracuse working on a dissertation about the Mensheviks, a faction of Russian radicals consigned to the dustbin of history by the October Revolution. And perhaps the saddest of the young literary men is Sam, who aspires to write the great epic of Zionism despite not actually knowing Hebrew. Meanwhile, Sam watches his reputation, as reflected in his Google statistics, shrink over time.
The codebreakers have worked out which person around the cultural journal N+1, of which Gessen is a founding editor, inspired each character. My impression is that it is not even necessary to read the novel to play this game. One person has speculated, for example, that the character Sam must be based on the novelist Sam Lipsyte -- presumably because they have the same name, since there is no other point of resemblance that I can detect. (Evidently players score extra points for sounding knowing without actually, you know, knowing anything.)
But suppose one reads All the Sad Young Literary Men on its own terms: that is, as a work of fiction, perhaps autobiographical in the way that first novels often tend to be, but one seeking to transform strictly personal experience into something else through literary craftsmanship. Read that way, it seems less like a group portrait of ambitious twentysomething writers in the Bush era (let alone grist for the gossip mill) than it does something much more traditional. It looks like a portrait of the artist as a young man -- but one painted as a triptych. The three central characters would be, in effect, so many authorial alter-egos.
If so, that would still not make the book a memoir in disguise. Breaking up the pattern of a life into fragments – letting each take shape as a distinct character, following a course that diverges from the others – speaks less of an urge towards self-revelation than it does of trust in writing itself as a process of finding or creating form. And more to the point, writing would be an effort to redeem the formlessness of life itself. Which really does tend to sneak up on you.
As one of Gessen's characters says towards the end of the novel: “The trouble is that when you’re young you don’t know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don’t exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences for certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose. But at the time I didn’t know; and now, when I knew, my mind was too filled up with useless auxiliary information, and beholden to special interests, and I was confused.”
Each of the major characters in All the Sad Young Literary Men finds himself in that position. So, perhaps, does the reader. It is one of the motives people have to write fiction, or to consume it. We go in search of lost time.
Recently, while Gessen was in Washington to read from his novel at a bookstore, he confirmed in conversation that all the sad young literary men had been spun out of the raw material of his own life. He had seen the bloggy speculation that the book was a roman à clef. It seemed to annoy him.
I did not have the digital recorder turned on at the time -- so that part of our exchange won’t be found in the podcast interview accompanying this column. Which is probably just as well. There is not much to say about the phenomenon of industrialized ressentiment that has not already been said elsewhere.
Instead, the podcast that accompanies this column covers other matters. Gessen describes trying to write about characters who actually care about politics, and whose interest in philosophical and historical matters is just as much a part of the texture of their experience as falling in love (or out of it). The interview also includes Gessen’s thoughts on publishing a rather old-fashioned species of literary magazine at a time when long-established patterns of cultural production are being disrupted by a medium that permits, even demands, instantaneous dissemination and feedback.
Thanks to the activity of digital gremlins, only part of the conversation got properly recorded. But for an earlier treatment of the themes of youth, regret, and making sense of things ex post facto, see this earlier column on the N+1 booklet called What We Should Have Known. And as an alternative to some of the more witless speculation about Gessen's novel (be warned: clicking that link will make you dumber), see the review by Joyce Carol Oates.