A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending with fellow No Record Press bloggers Dave Feinstein and Sarah Todd a reading by Keith Gessen and Charles Bock at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club. Dave and I met at the next-door Irish bar in time for happy hour and made it just that. The bartender briefly lost my credit card, resulting in a round of Jameson on the house.
We made it next door and paid our seven dollars. Then, like a drunken sorority girl studying in Milan, I bought nearly everything in sight (thanks for the loan, Maayan!). The difficulty and expense of obtaining books in Manila had prohibited me from taking advantage of the MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK RELEASE OF THE YEAR, which was something of a player in the earlier drama posted here, The Spectacle of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould (and Part II). In addition to All The Sad Young Literary Men, I also picked up the n+1 booklet “What We Should Have Known”, which promises to tell me about what I should have known six years ago: that I’m seven years behind the curve and never again to be in front of the eight ball.
All of which segues nicely into a examination of Gessen’s
new novel, All The Sad Young Literary Men, which also has a lot to say about college, or at least schooling generally, and the blanket nostalgia for youth that accompanies thoughts of those years. But first, a brief meditation on the sonorousness euphony of a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club. The experience of hearing Gessen speak his book had an indelible effect on my reading of the material later that week, his literal voice still present in my head.
It’s impossible for me to comment on Gessen’s book without including in the discussion n+1 editor Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision. Also, I have to bring in the fourth dimension, time and its human manifestations something like youth, wisdom, and nostalgia. In both these works there’s a struggle with the basic narrative form, by which I mean a linear plot line with a specific dramatic climax. I haven’t read any reviews of Gessen’s book (see a pattern? [Jesus, this link also contains a reference to Benjamin Kunkel — what the hell is going on here? -Ed.]), but I do remember seeing some ink spilled on Kunkel’s plot climax, which came across to some as something of a deus ex machina moment. Kunkel had the problem of needing an event that would shake his main character out of the lethargy and self-doubt that had plagued him during his twenties. This character, much like the males of Gessen’s work, had thought themselves into a trap, something of a cyclical reading of time — an instance of postmodern uncertainty of action that many readers have felt themselves, a particularly post-Cold War, late-90s, early 2000s problem. The characters are so full of learning — the specialized kind dispensed by our institutions of higher learning — that they are unable to push their own lives down a particular path and instead drift through their twenties. Gessen’s characters burrow deeper into their academic obsessions, looking for clues to their own lives in the history of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while nothing of note actually happens in their lives. Kunkel’s character takes a psychedelic drug in Ecuador and realizes he needs to dedicate himself to social justice. Gessen’s effort is more organic and even something of a noir, and the plot arc isn’t as dramatic; somewhere near the end of the book, after pages of humorous references to Russian history (more on this), a character realizes that there’s a limit to the usefulness of parallelism between him and those who came before him. A subtle change, but something of a turning point: the character’s driving philosophy becomes less a positivist insistence on academic obsession and more an immediate empiricism. (This reading of Gessen’s work doesn’t give enough weight to some of the darker elements of ATSYLM, some of the things that give New York grace notes or maybe even sixteenth notes of Thomas Mann’s Venice. Maybe I’ll get around to talking about the complicated Keith character, the one character who is most outwardly successful but is being undermined by that success; women love him for the wrong reasons, rewarding the things he finds most distasteful.)
ATSYLM’s climatic moments are foreshadowed in the early pages of the novel when the voice of the novel is still being disputed and a character makes a joke using Richard Rorty’s Contigency, Irony, and Solidarity as the common knowledge. We have the first two in ample amounts, he points out, but where’s the solidarity? Let’s briefly set aside this joke and metonymy’s usefulness in extricating this book’s (and Indecision’s) motifs, in which the main characters are inwardly focused and often selfish. Gessen has said, I think, that he wanted this book to reach a wider audience than those that normally read books and are already part of the conversation. I’m not convinced that ATSYLM would be as interesting to them as it was to me. ATSYLM and probably less so Indecision speak to what a professor of mine called the overeducated white male — these are the people getting Rorty jokes and thinking they’re funny.
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.
Getting back to time. These books are dealing with a problem that young males of a strong liberal arts background find themselves in from time to time. Books have provided so many answers, ATSYLM’s characters think, shouldn’t the answers to my romantic life be found betwixt their covers? Indecision and ATSYLM pose the old philosophical question of whether an idea can begin the causal chain of action. Does my intellectually known desire to, say, find solidarity with my fellow humans, act as a proximate cause to me acting toward that goal? Try as I might, Hume would argue, thinking and willing my hand to raise does not in fact raise it. Benjamin Kunkel and Keith Gessen are faced with a difficult problem in addressing this problem. Gessen and Kunkel at least at some level are trying to help others with their work — Kunkel more explicitly at the end of Indecision. But they have the unenviable task of trying to communicate the idea that somehow certain thoughts and experiences can in fact end a postmodern doubt cycle and somehow bridge the gap between thought and action, somehow an idea can be the cessation of ideas and bring one into action; this book might be able to take you out of logic’s strictures and into something as amorphous and exposed as belief or commitment.
I keep trying to talk about time. Part of this overeducated white male situation that Gessen and Kunkel depict so adeptly is their characters stand out of narrative time. What do I mean by “out of narrative time”? When the characters aren’t committed to a cause or to someone, they lack the recognizable externally driven conflict arcs that one easily identifies in Hemingway, or in Eggers’ What is the What? The n+1 novelists both wrote bildungsromans for people who haven’t been particularly barred by their race, class, or gender. The central conflict for these characters is precisely the lack of conflict in their lives, a problem which is in fact exacerbated by our mainstream culture and its ability to endlessly entertain and distract. In the middle of ATSYLM not much is actually happening in the lives of the main characters as they dither about their lives. This is what I mean by these characters existing outside of time. Any source of tension in their lives is immediately recontextualized through the lens of a historical time and place that is not their own; instead of relating to any of his girlfriends, Mark relates to the Mensheviks. They desire conflict on some level, but avoid it. This creates a denial of the self’s empiricism and knowledge that blocks the possibility of the above-mentioned link between thought and action. Here, thought begets thought and nothing more. A line creates progress, a circle does not. In New York, one’s twenties don’t seem to end.
In ATSYLM, there’s a beautiful lyrical nostalgia and gentle humor that should not go unnoticed, even within the context of this fun digression on time. In some of the writing I was reminded of Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy. A similar yearning pervades ATSYLM. Gessen uses a technique of repetition that makes us hold on, hold on tightly to the phrase repeated. It slows down the narrative pace and keeps it contemplative instead of driving. Notably, the place that this technique seems to disappear is in the chapter on Sam in Jenin, which is the chapter most ripe with action and traditional plot motion; it is the most Hollywood-ready section. Sam naively desires to see tanks coming to Jenin. That would be witnessing something, he thinks. In fact, that would experiencing something. The Palestinians around Sam cannot understand his fascination; to them, witnessing the tanks rolling in means little else besides destruction and death. To Sam, it would be something more: a defining moment for him. He hears news about five Jews who were killed in Jerusalem, and the tactile reality of his situation, that he is in fact in danger, hits him for the first time. He realizes that “he and Katie were — what? — soul mates. Or near soul mates. And that — he wanted to explain this to her somehow — that may be all you were going to get, in this life.” It’s a very real moment. It’s time for action, he decided, no more indecision, no more in the middle. Gessen is able to weave humor in seamlessly shortly thereafter, when he imagines Katie’s deftness in relationship brinksmanship. “Aha! Bested again! He was always off balance. She acted naturally where he acted unnaturally; she was on the alert while he was lazy. She had such control of tone, in her text messages, she was the Edith Wharton of text messaging.” Jokes such as this in ATSYLM don’t have the same jarring quality that they might have elsewhere. Part of it is that Gessen establishes very early on that frankly nerdy jokes are going to be a hallmark for all the characters, and we laugh a tender laugh of recognition at their quirks because Sam does in fact mean what he thinks here and elsewhere, and the humor flows so naturally and parenthetically from these characters that it never disrupts or distracts only engages, entertains, and emphasizes the mental world that is occasionally problematic for these characters. Only rarely is there artifice. (For me, it was in Sam’s Googling section, which at times left an authentic realism behind for satire, and Sam became more pathetic than empathetic.) Part of the trick for the characters ends up with them seeing how their lives are in fact discernible from Trotsky’s, how their world is not Russia’s in 1918. For all the self-regard it takes to see one’s life as a parallel to the Israel-Palestine issue, true self-regard is also absent; in seeing the world around them as constructed and determined, they deny themselves the agency needed to affect their own lives.
For a moment, theory was something of an end in itself, and political events lined up concurrently. The Cold War ended, the United States had no enemies, the global economy was racing forward, the story goes, and we had reached the end of history. In theory and in art, it seemed, something of an end point had been reached. The novel was finished. Nothing new in art could be done. Then 9/11. Then the Bush Administration. Economic slowdown. Indecision’s main character woke up. Eventually people stopped talking about the end of the novel, or at least that discussion got pushed to the margins. Once again, the world had real problems, making some wonder if maybe perhaps we had problems in the late 90s all along but just ignored them, or were distracted from them. Indecision and ATSYLM are books that present a new literary generation’s voice; these are the first books that generate specific speech patterns, jokes, and environments that I recognize in a real and immediate way, and not just through some effort of literary empathy. But how do we relate to one another after far more than a century’s worth of atomization and bowling alone? We know we are supposed to love others, but how? The characters in ATSYLM are ambitious, surely, and want to change the time in which they live, but how? The recent phenomenon of an endless and free 20s in New York is considered and rejected in favor of commitment, whether to a person or a cause, making something of a clarion call that the main characters wish they had heard earlier.