Those of you who read the first part of this two-part Keith Gessen thing know what I mean. I admit, I read the NY Style article on Keith Gessen and I flew off the handle a bit. Here is a wicked man, I thought. Here is a wicked man whose twisted virtue is to make it more difficult for writers to get access to publishing. Here is an example of the process by which old, entrenched business practices in the print-fiction world cloak themselves in the veneer of novelty and rebellion, the better to beguile the young and the impassioned. Here--is a false Messiah!
What I thought when I wrote all of that was that eventually I would find a used copy of All The Sad Young Literary Men. I would read this copy and I would suddenly come into contact with the real Keith Gessen--the one beneath the smarm and the hype. I would encounter the Keith Gessen who, despite his critical excesses, was still willing to put aside his ego for long enough to engage with the Novelistic Project: the attempt to trace through language the invisible silk of the spiderweb that links human dreams to brute physical existence. I wanted to plumb the well of an evil man's dreams and find, at its base, the bones of the lost child, fallen so long ago.
Unfortunately, I did buy a copy of All The Sad Young Literary Men, and it just sucks.
There are three characters in All The Sad Young Literary Men. By "character" I mean "someone with whom the audience is expected to sympathize." There are three "characters." For efficiency, each of them is essentially identical: self-obsessed, ineffective, somewhat hysterical in their pursuits of literature or college degrees or whatever. Each character has a special, personal character trait to help distinguish him, sort of like in the Final Fantasy video games, where every character is identical but each of them has a distinctive super attack. One character is named Sam. His super attack is that he wants to write a Zionist epic. Another is named Mark. His super attack is that he likes Internet pornography. The third is named Keith Gessen. His super attack is that he is wiser and more successful than Sam or Mark. That's about it. They're sort of like replaceable rifle parts, only they're the main characters in a novel, and the one named after the author is probably the one you want to pick to back you in a fight.
There are plenty of other non-characters, meaning people with whom the audience is not expected to sympathize. They are mere representations of human beings, most of them interchangeable and female, kept around for the purposes of fucking or the sexual tension that precedes or prevents fucking. There are also some male characters kept around so that the main characters can envy them, or at least bask in their glow. None of these non-characters really has independent goals, or at least none that matter from the point of view of the three characters. They are too sad already; they cannot admit any other points of view or sadness into their lives.
One such non-character is Al Gore. Another such non-character is his daughter Lauren. One of the first plot points in the novel involves "Keith Gessen" meeting and desiring Lauren Gore. But Lauren Gore sleeps with his roommate! Our heart goes out to Keith Gessen here: what a sad young literary man! A famous politician's daughter does not immediately find him more desirable than his roommate despite no effort on his part! Truly the artist at the close of the twentieth century faces nightmares of persecution and Dostoyevskian suffering.
There's also a part where the characters have to shop at a bodega because they are young and poor. Another "character," Mark, knows that he and his girlfriend don't have enough money to each buy a sandwich. So he demands that she buy the sandwich. He screams at her: "ORDER A SANDWICH!", in all caps, like that. "My God," she says in Russian, because she is Russian and we shouldn't forget that. Poverty has driven a wedge between two people. Poverty has always informed literature, you see: for example, Jean Valjean's adventures begin when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and is sent to prison for decades, and Charles Dickens wrote lots of stories where kids starve to death before the feet of an uncaring world, lost in its everyday concerns, like about who should buy the sandwich or whether one's Google is shrinking. Poverty = instant sympathy!
Let's not even get into the part where Sam goes to Israel and spends the whole time in a Palestinian refugee camp, whining on the Internet that there aren't enough tanks around. This could almost work if there's a good payoff at the end, but there isn't. An Israeli tank takes a shot at Sam and his Palestinian buds and he realizes as he runs away laughing that "the Israelis, well, the Israelis were fuckers." There we go! Phillip Roth, put down your pen, put that sequel to Operation Shylock away! No need to write anything more on the topic! The Israelis are fuckers! They shot at a main character!
Seriously, look at this. This is the plot of that sequence, which is actually the strongest and most interesting in the entire book.
- Sam wants to see a tank. He's sad because there are no tanks.
- Sam gets to see a tank, all right!
- Now Sam is happy.
This is the plot of a trip to Toys R Us. This is not the plot of a novel that seriously addresses anything whatsoever.
So why'd Gessen even write this novel? For the sake of writing a novel? Because writing a novel is what smart folks do?
I also hate his sentences, his breathless sentences. They all stop, just like this they stop. It's a way, a fantastic and a mad and a lousy way, of making it seem like your writing, your young, mad writing, is world-weary and emotional and "Fitzgeraldian", as Keith Gessen's IRL best pal says on the dust jacket. And this happens on every page, every tedious page. I could forgive it if it showed up once or twice, but when I see it every page, here's what I think of: Keith Gessen sitting at a laptop in a room with a really nice carpet and silk curtains over large windows. With one finger, hunting and pecking, he taps out a sentence: "She took the 6 train back to the Bronx, and I"--then he stops, eyes closing in ecstasy, that old wine-bubble electricity rising in his spine--"and I, I took the 7 back to Queensboro Plaza." He slams shut the laptop cover, shakes his head at his brilliance, retires to an icy shower.
Seriously: every page, every stinking, fantastic page!
There's also a line that rips off the last line of the Great Gatsby. No one reads anymore; who'll notice, hey? But there are also a couple of jokes ripped off from episodes of the Simpsons, unattributed. People do watch the Simpsons and will probably notice that. I guess it was intentional, a rich tapestry of vernacular television shows. To forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, indeed!
All The Sad Young Literary Men is a bad book. I wanted this not to be a bad book, but there it is.
Keith Gessen: if you write another book, especially one with yourself as the main character, here are some rules to follow:
- If your character is the smartest, the most reasonable one in the book, barring maybe Al Gore, you are probably doing something wrong.
- If you are trying--and I know you are trying; that's what's grim--to make your characters seem humble, real feet-of-clay types, really try. If your characters' biggest personal problems are "too intense" and "take the Mensheviks too seriously for most of the people in this fallen world", you are writing fan-fiction for yourself.
- If you want to write like Fitzgerald, figure out how Fitzgerald wrote and do that. Don't fake it by writing sentences, breathless sentences, with that horrible pause in them.
- Don't write a book because you think it'd be a gas, or whyever you wrote this. There's this pervading sense that this novel is Serious Business and it's not even about anything serious. The only thing at stake in this novel is your own sense of yourself as the kind of guy who, you know, writes novels. That's not enough.
There is one scene I like. At one point Mark's car rolls backward into a pond. But it's a false pond, created to give some ambiance and "natural beauty" to a nasty giant apartment complex, so Mark can just walk through the shallow water to get to his car and drive it out no problem. It's a pretty good image. I dug that.
Do more stuff like that, Kay-Gee. Tell the damn truth about things, have a point to what you do, quit pausing your sentences like that, and we'll be good, I hope.
Posted by future on Thu, 19 Jun 2008 17:06:57 -0400 -- permanent link