A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Portraits of the Artist as Young Men

The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:

By Keith Gessen
Viking, 242 pp., $24.95

The Germans have a word for it: Bildungsroman. Roman means “novel,” and Bildung is, well, “education” and “development” and “formation” and a lot of other stuff all packed into one word. A Bildungsroman is a more-or-less-veiled autobiographical novel about a young person’s coming of age. Charles Dickens wrote two of them, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. George Eliot’s was The Mill on the Floss, D.H. Lawrence’s was Sons and Lovers, Thomas Wolfe’s was Look Homeward, Angel, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s was This Side of Paradise.

And All the Sad Young Literary Men is Keith Gessen’s. Its publication has caused a mild stir among the book world’s chatterati, because Gessen is, to go German again, a Wunderkind of the literary scene. Just 33, he is the founder and editor of a much-talked-about literary journal, n+1, and a critic who has been harsh on writers whom he finds wanting, such as Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer. He’s also involved in a long-running feud with his West Coast rival, Dave Eggers, the founder of McSweeney’s.

But you don’t need to be a devotee of lit chat to read his novel. The sad young literary men of the title are named Mark, Keith and Sam, and their stories, which connect only tangentially, are told in separate chapters, rotating through the book. All three are aspects of the author. Keith is the most obvious one, because he not only shares the author’s name and his Russian origins – Gessen was born in Moscow and came to the States when he was 6 years old – but he also narrates his sections of the book in first person. But Sam, like the author, lives in Brooklyn and went to Harvard, and Mark is a graduate student in history at Syracuse University, where Gessen got an M.F.A. in the writing program.

We meet Mark first, living with Sasha, whom he met in Moscow while doing research. It’s 1998 and they live in arty poverty in Queens: “To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little, but to be young – to be young was divine.” But time passes and Sasha leaves, and Mark sinks into the ennui of writing a dissertation on one of the lesser Mensheviks. He has dalliances with various women toward whom he takes a characteristically intellectual approach. He “had spent his twenties, even that portion of his twenties that he spent married, preoccupied with the problem of sex. He considered it in the positivist tradition of how to find it, of course, but also, and more significant, in the interpretivist or postmodernist tradition of how to think about it, how to ponder it historically, how to discourse about and critique it.” Sex in the head, D.H. Lawrence called it.

Sam comes out of Harvard planning to write “the great Zionist epic,” undeterred by the fact that he’s never been to Israel and doesn’t read Hebrew: When he tried to learn the language, “the letters looked like Tetris pieces.” When he gets a book contract, he develops writer’s block – he even stops “writing the occasional online opinion piece about the Second Intifada.” And to his dismay, that causes his presence on Google, evidence of his existence, to decline. He calls up Google to plead with someone to “up my count a little until I get back on my feet.” Eventually, Sam will get it together and go to Israel, where reality will set his life on a different course.

Keith’s story begins in a no less disillusioning manner: an encounter on the street with Lauren, his Harvard roommate’s former girlfriend, and her father, “the former Vice President” who “wore his beard, his infamous beard” – i.e., the one Al Gore grew after losing the election of 2000, though none of Gore’s daughters is called Lauren. Keith, who is “hurt” by Lauren’s failure to introduce him to her father, has a burgeoning career as a lefty literary intellectual at the beginning of a post-literary era dominated by a right-wing administration with a discernible bias against any intellectuals other than the ones who contribute to the Weekly Standard. The times -- for Keith and Sam and Mark -- are out of joint.

It’s possible to dismiss this novel as another fine whine from another elitist writer. And by invoking with his title Fitzgerald’s story collection All the Sad Young Men and by inviting the parallel of Gessen’s Harvard to the Princeton that was the backdrop for Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Gessen is displaying brazen chutzpah. Mark and Sam and Keith are not in themselves as interesting as he seems to think they are, and he hasn’t put enough imagination into creating secondary characters who might serve as foils to them. As characters, the women in the book are evanescent, even though they are a central concern … no, obsession of the three protagonists.

But there is wit at work in the novel, and as a document of the times, as a reflection of the alienation of young American intellectuals in the first decade of the 21st century, All the Sad Young Literary Men may be the kind of book that people will pick up years from now – just as we pick up Fitzgerald’s chronicles of the Jazz Age, or books by Britain’s Angry Young Men of the 1950s -- and say, “Oh, that’s what it must have been like.”