Rob's Reviews > All the Sad Young Literary Men

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

really liked it
Read in May, 2009

This entertaining trawl through the whys and wherefores of modern America explores a number of interesting themes. Above all, I was left with the feeling that the individual is everything – almost any situation is filtered through the personal feelings of the main character and relationships dominate all – overshadowing any number of possibly more important topics: the outrages of the Bush administration, intellectual study, even a visit to the Palestinian territories. Such self-centredness leads to the creation of some terribly self-pitying characters, although Gessen makes it clear through their agonising that they have no real right to feel this way in the wider scheme of things.

The book comes into its own through the exploration of the contemporary politics and history of the Middle East and Russia at the time of the 1917 Revolution. As a backcloth to the personal ruminations of the three protagonists, these settings are introduced in a measured, humanistic way. The chapter on Jenin is particularly well drawn and in particular the shifting sands of Sam’s outlook throughout his visit to the West Bank; sympathizing one moment with the Israelis, the next with the Palestinians, depending on circumstance, and making a mockery of any attempt to side unequivocally with one or the other.

This book won’t do much to undermine the notion that New York is the capital of the world right now and provincial America in the shape of poor Syracuse comes in for a bit of knocking, but the flimsy basis for this American cultural dominance is underlined and Gessen has produced a promising first novel. It would be good to see him avoid the magpie like, dilettante career trajectory of the comparable Dave Eggers and see him build on this, hopefully to produce something of a serious epic nature next time up.

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