Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men.

Reading between the lines.
April 21 2008 7:22 AM

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Cleverest of Them All?

Keith Gessen's great adventure.

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Don't let the smug undertone alienate you overmuch, though. Gessen earns it, more or less. He is, in fact, a very good satirist. He skewers with glee, like a latter-day Mary McCarthy. He knows things about today's young male literary journalists that the rest of us suspect but lack the means to confirm. He knows how overconfident they are and how easily overcome with self-disgust. He knows that they're starving to be told that they matter and must tamp down the certainty that they don't. He knows that they're ferociously career-minded, and terrified of being labeled as such. That Harvardian conviction that one's every utterance partakes of genius? He grasps that it is more likely to be a trait of men, or at least he does not attribute it to the book's women. (We don't occupy the point of view of any female character, which further suggests that he understands his limitations.) Best of all, he knows how his generation riffs. His book is filled with the sort of high nonsense you find in n+1, happily stripped of earnestness. Consider Mark on dating, which,

Mark knew from watching television, was the prime historical movement of his time: it was the biggest industry, the most potent narrative device. It was bigger than sex, bigger than pornography. Dating, builder of cities. And Mark, of course, wanted to be current, wanted to be historical, to participate in the truth regime as it was now constituted: to date, in other words, with maximum anonymity, without the safety nets of parental and social networds, potluck dinners, and work parties. It was the only way to find out, for sure, who Mark was.

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Keith's brush with history is only slightly less absurd than Mark's. It occurs at the beginning of the novel. Ferdinand, his debauched college roommate, starts bringing Al Gore's daughter Lauren back to their room. (The timing—this takes place in the mid-1990s—suggests that she stands in for Karenna.) Keith, the suite nerd, flirts with her, has a heart-to-heart with her, dreams of stealing her away from his unworthy friend. He does not. Years later, after the disastrous election of 2000, he runs into daughter and father on Madison Avenue. "She looked happy, flushed, a walking advertisement for our civilization, while her father wore his beard, his infamous beard," he writes. "I wanted to say to Lauren, 'I'm sorry,' though she didn't look like she needed it, and 'I wish you were President,' to her father, who looked like he did." Gore, however, flinches, and father and daughter rush off.

It helps to know, in deciphering this scene, that Gore is the patron saint of n+1, the Trotsky of Gessen and his post-neoliberal crew. Gore and his beard and his nonpresidency and his thoughts on environmental catastrophe haunt both magazine and novel, reminding us of what could have been and what might be again. By the end of the novel, after Keith has come back from several years in Moscow—"I had grown stronger, my vision was wider, and I saw more clearly than my contemporaries"—and experienced a small personal crisis that some might consider a tragedy and some a blessing, he figures out a whole new way to matter, one that, it would be nice to think, Gore would approve of. "A cabal of liars and hypocrites had stolen the White House, launched a criminal war, bankrupted our treasury and authorized torture in our prisons," he writes. "And now it was too late—but also, you know, not too late."

I won't tell you what Keith thinks will save him and maybe the rest of the America, too, but I will say that as a woman who has been on the other side of the solution he proposes, I don't think it will. (I'm not sure Gessen does, either.) However, it's nice to know that the young people (as my 82-year-old father-in-law calls them) still await their glory. It's their perquisite, and also their job.

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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