Greg's Reviews > All the Sad Young Literary Men

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
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's review
Jan 23, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Read in January, 2009

I wanted to like this book more. Based on the five star system, I have to give it a three. In reality it's a weak three and a half stars, maybe a three point four stars.

The book is about a three (I think, I was thinking of this book about an hour after finishing it, and I was trying to think how many different main characters are there, and I had a hard time thinking if there were three or four, I'm pretty sure it's three though) sad young men. I don't know if I'd call him literary men, but as a title it sounds better than All the Sad Young Intellectual Men or something like that. The book follows the trajectories of three men in the college/early twenties/grad school days. They are all part of that subculture of people who believe that ideas and books matter, and who are wrapped up in the world and probably even believe that long discussions about the Russian Revolution or the social theories of Focault are important things and that they aren't living in some self-imposed ghetto that is quite out of touch with the real world (me being a former full-time resident of this ghetto and still living on the fringes of it don't mean this in a totally condescending way, but when I think of a lot of the talk that passed as conversation when I was in grad school 1.0 I have to wonder what kind of world we really thought we were living in). These bright young men are also emotional cripples who see their lives passing in front of them, and dread the idea of being alone, not living up to their potential, feeling that maybe their ideas are only idealistic baggage that won't be allowed on the next connecting flight, and for the life of them feel they are old and past their prime at the ripe old ages of say mid to late twenties.

All of this is familiar territory for me, fuck I could even easily put myself into any of these people's places, but with maybe a little less ambition and a healthy dose of melancholy or depression or whatever you'd call it (something strangely absent from any of the male main characters, but present in some of the females (strange that I thought of this, since sad is in the title, and they are kind of sad, but sad in a way that doesn't seem ingrained, more just sad at the state they are in, which is different I think from having a general melancholy view of the world, does this make sense?). Just shift away the focus from history and philosophy and add some extra self doubt and I think I could be a stand in for one of these guys.

Normally a book that I can in many ways relate to so heavily would garner at least four stars. The feeling that something is being written for you, and that you 'get it' where other's might just be tourists is usually a strong motivation to really like something. And I tried to really like this quick and pretty enjoyable book. The problem I had was that all the characters (the three main story lines, or was it four?) all sounded the same. I had a hard time sometimes remembering which story line was going on since they all kind of blended into one voice. Granted only one of the main stories was told in the first person, and there were more than enough differences in the characters to tell them apart in the details, but the entire feel of all three of them was too similar. Usually at the beginning of a chapter it would take me a few pages before I realized which hapless sad young man I was reading about.

Spoiler? - Maybe not much of one. Actually not really.

My other main problem with the book was that for almost 3/4's of the book the characters had almost nothing to do with one another, they seemed like three different stories that were similar and took place in the same era but didn't come together. Then the author decided to bring them all together with some very weak ties that felt sort of like a relationship deus ex machina. I guess the three story lines needed to be brought together, but the way that it happened was kind of contrived. I love books where disparate story lines are able to be brought together, and most of my favorite books use this technique, say something like Magnetic Field(s) or anything by Richard Powers, but in those cases it doesn't feel like the author had written a few different stories and now needs to put them together and call them a novel.

I guess in the end I enjoyed the book, but I think it needed to be developed more both in it's voice and in the overall structure. On the plus side it's use of the history of Communism as a device to show the failings in the characters' lives was a nice touch. Oh, and from the beginning of the review, my objection to the title. None of the characters seem especially literary as opposed to being very historical and political. But I'm just splitting hairs there.
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Reading Progress

01/23/2009 page 135
01/24/2009 page 144
59.5% "There is a misquote of a Silver Jews song on this page. Maybe I'm wrong, but he puts the word Man in the line where it should say Steve."
03/03/2016 marked as: read
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Jasmine I liked this book a lot but I forgot to finish it. Don't be a quitter.

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