Three Middle-Aged Literary Men Lamenting Their Youth would be a more appropriate title for Keith Gessen’s debut novel. Instead, he has chosen to title it All the Sad Young Literary Men, and while that isn’t entirely accurate, it still hints at the general malaise portrayed within the novel’s pages.
Chapters alternate between the perspectives of three young men. Two of these men, Mark and Sam, tell their stories in third person. Keith, the third young man and somewhat of a stand-in for Gessen, tells his story in the first person, making the memoir-style writing seem even more like actual accounts of the author’s life.
Mark, Sam and Keith had dreams and ambitions while they were attending Harvard. Even when they graduated they didn’t mind being broke because they were still optimistic that they would leave their individual marks upon the world. They were interested in politics and wanted their writing to alter the way people viewed the world. Sam, for example, wanted to write “the great Zionist novel.”
But, now that they’re pushing 30 and have accomplished next to nothing, their idealism fades to pessimism. Being perpetually broke from temp jobs has lost its adventurous feel. Dreams don’t seem realistic anymore.
Ambitions seem like failure. Separately, they mourn the loss of their unfulfilled potential and innocence of their college days. They want to wind back the clock so that they can be students again. They don’t want to become old.
Their anti-climatic “love” lives are just as messy as their professional lives. Mark, Sam and Keith go through several girlfriends, sometimes two at a time. There never seem to be any deep feelings. It’s more of a combination of lust and desperation to fill the emptiness of their lives.
They all admit to having a love-hate relationship with New York City. As a result, Mark travels to Russia to learn more about his native country and Sam voyages to Israel where he witnesses the torture, poverty and overwhelming sadness that accompanies war.
Overall, All the Sad Young Literary Men is a depressing view on self-discovery and life in general. It remains a black hole of hope until the very end when Keith discovers a tiny shred of optimism.
The philosophy is fairly self-satisfactory, such as when Mark learns that he’s neither mediocre nor a genius, and if he tries he’ll be better than fine, but if he doesn’t he’ll slip through the cracks. All of these pearls of wisdom seem fairly obvious without anything inspirational or unique.
For the first few chapters, black and white photographs of famous people are unnecessarily included. In case you don’t recall what Abraham Lincoln looks like, a small reference to him warrants his stern-looking mug shot to glare up from the pages.
Keith also relays the affair between his college roommate Ferdinand and Lauren, the daughter of a conspicuously unnamed Democratic presidential candidate. There’s a picture of Lauren accompanying this anecdote as well as a picture of Al Gore standing next to Bill Clinton, in case readers have any doubt who the unnamed father might have been.
Especially since the photos disappear for the rest of the book, Gessen’s pains to assure readers that he knew Lauren Gore seem like bragging rather than storytelling.
In fact, the book can be summed up with that one fact: It has no plot. So, don’t bother unless you enjoy reading about characters as they wallow in self-pity.