Sunday, May 4, 2008

New Grub Street


Early on in Keith Gessen’s debut novel, one of the characters visits his ex-girlfriend being treated for depression in a sanatorium. The institution, he thinks, would be better off being called a “slackertorium”: “a place for overworked urbanites to feel pleasantly melancholic”. That isn’t a bad way to describe the world of All the Sad Young Literary Men, even though the main characters display a marked aversion to overwork.

Here, Gessen – one of the editors of the literary journal n+1 -- tells the intertwined tales of three young men from America’s east coast: Sam, Mark and Keith, all with literary aspirations. The period is primarily the late Nineties, and when they aren’t busy expressing alarm over Bush’s re-election, they’re working as temps, obsessing over girlfriends past and present, Googling themselves, getting close to intellectuals they hero-worship and working on dissertations involving, variously, Abraham Lincoln and minor facets of the Russian Revolution. (Startlingly, one of them even visits the occupied West Bank.)

All of which is pleasant enough and not without a certain whimsical appeal. However, the occasional inclusion of photographs, charts and bullet-pointed prose make it too twee and, after a while, the goings-on of a bunch of guys who don’t seem to want anything in particular become lacklustre.

Worth your while? A bit too self-indulgent to be satisfying. Try the other n+1 editor Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision instead.

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