Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Keith Gessen, RE: "All the Sad Young Literary Men"

I was definitely prepared to dislike your book, Keith. Not because of n+1, but in spite of n+1. Basically, I hate the title. "All the Sad Young Literary Men" is both a terrible, terrible title, and also a very fitting one for the book you've written, which I did like very much. How these two things are compatible I'm not sure. I mean, after I finished the book, I understood the tone in which the title was composed in--tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the earnestness of the protagonists' struggles, recognizing, in the overall scheme of things, that those "struggles" are minor. In some ways, I think you underplayed your hand with the title. I think it apologizes for the book in a way it doesn't need to. I think the title says, "Read this book if you want, but if sadness, and irony, and youth, and maleness don't interest you, by all means, keep browsing." Which is short-changing the whole for an inventory of the sum of its parts. And not even all the parts. How many novels deal head-on, and in entirely convincing fashion, with the Israeli-Palestinian question? How many look coldly and calculatedly at their literary heroes? How many deal with sentimental issues like divorce and young love and Al Gore's daughter without a trace of sentimentality? (or least, I bought the sentiment) And the fact that the title's a Fitzgerald pastiche only makes it worse, not better. And by the way, I went to a party at Harvard with Sarah Gore, and since reading the book, I've been wondering if you were there. It wasn't a very large party--25 people tops. The guy's apartment had a fake photo essay about the uni-bomber done in poloroids--very funny as I recall. It was hanging in the kitchen.

Anyway, I really liked your book (which I didn't buy, sorry; I work at a Village Voice-affiliated newspaper and it came in the company mail) so I hope you take more time out from n+1 to write fiction. That same common sense that the journal dishes out is present in your fictional voice, and even if what you're saying at each moment is not true, it feels true, like you're clearing away all the intellectual cob-webs. It's a pleasurable feeling. Just ask Jonathan Lethem or someone to title it for you.

"...This is why it's so important to meet your heroes while you are young, so they can tell you. When I met Morris Binkel I wanted merely for him to say: Yes. I see it in you. You can do with it what you will, but you've got it. You can be like me, if that's what you want."

"Four hours later he was in the Syracuse bus station. It was--here was the joke--the cleanest, most modern, best-lit and comfortable bus station he'd ever been in. It gave you the wrong idea about Syracuse, boy. Of course, that's what bus stations were supposed to do, throughout history. Give travellers the wrong idea."

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