The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Probably because he edits the very hip, very New-York-in-crowd journal n+1, Keith Gessen's first novel ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN got a ton of press and got blurbed by the best in the New York in crowd. n+1 is a pretty serious journal and is, I believe, trying to resurrect the good old 1950s days when little intellectual magazines in New York were the center of American intellectual life. I wish them well on this, and it's nice to see that they've embraced the Web and aren't such antiquarians to insist on print only. Gessen's novel is a first novel, and as I've mentioned a bunch of times on this blog first novels are for the most part fictionalizations of the author's formative experiences. Gessen's is no different, although he appears to have split himself into three characters--Mark, Keith, and Sam. Each one is a wannabe intellectual of a sort, and two of them are former athletes (which is a nice nod to John Irving, I think, in a way that keeps the novel from being too SERIOUS). The plot... well, there isn't much. Each of these three nice young men is tortured; each sees the great events of the world through the lens of their own personal life (Mark is the most interesting, I think, and gets the most pages; he's a grad student at Syracuse and interprets the events of his romantic life as having cognates in the Bolshevik/Menshevik split); each is totally unaware of his own self-involvement, which as my wife says all twenty-somethings are entitled to be. The book can't decide how ironic it wants to be, though. Sometimes Gessen clearly makes fun of his characters' self-involvement, but at other times if there's irony or distance there I don't see it. The book's main flaw, though, is that the characters just aren't distinct enough. Which one was dating the sex-advice columnist? Which one was from Maryland? Which one played football, and which hockey?

Gessen reminds me a bit of Stephen L. Carter, another pretty well-known intellectual who has become a fiction writer. Their novels feel like what they are: creativity produced by a person whose real job is to analyze creative works. They are smart and accomplished, but after all that a bit by-the-numbers, lifeless.

We are in the Great Smokies this week, staying in a cabin located between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The park itself is spectacular and we won't have a chance to see much of it at all because it's so huge. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, though, that's a different story. Pigeon Forge is hands-down the ugliest strip of tourist traps I have ever seen, and the fact that the dominant ethos here is patriotic/Southern/"down-home"/evangelical just makes it all the more icky. Nonetheless, it's Dollywood today.


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