The lives of people in their early 20s, Dave Eggers once wrote, are very difficult to make interesting. If that's so (and it usually is), then Keith Gessen has taken on a project practically designed to hit the trifecta of blah. His debut novel, "All the Sad Young Literary Men," stars three men struggling to sort out their identities after college, each with a different outsized ambition: Sam wants to write the great Zionist epic, Mark is laboring on a dissertation about early Soviet Russia, and Keith dreams of becoming a serious literary critic and public intellectual. What Gessen foregrounds, though, is their comic sameness: their narcissism, their anxiety about success, and their constant panic about their attractiveness to women.
"When you are twenty years old, and twenty-one, and twenty-two, and twenty-three, and twenty-four, what you want from people is that they tell you about you," notes Keith. "[Y]ou watch the world for the way it watches you." Gessen's novel is studded with such self-aware observations, usually as one of his three leading men is busily trying to prove his sexual and intellectual worth. In this case, Keith is attending a Brooklyn party with a lit-crit heavyweight and attempting a flirtation with one of the women there. When he describes being smitten with "her sharp tongue and her simple grown-up jewelry," it's clear how much of a boy he remains.
Gessen usually plays such incidents for laughs, though he's often dealing in black comedy. After Sam's purported epic collapses and his writing work dries up, he's left to despair as a temp, at one point calling Google and demanding that the search engine boost the number of results for searches on his name. Feeling trapped in Syracuse after a split with his wife, Mark tries to manage the affections of a news-weekly reporter and a needy fellow graduate student; he's still flailing years later, courting a young publishing intern to no useful end. He looks for answers in his Soviet scholarship, but of course, "these historical parallels were of limited use in figuring out your personal life."
Not that Gessen doesn't give those historical parallels a try: Keith's narrative is lashed to anecdotes about Soviet dissident writer Isaac Babel, and Sam ultimately winds up in the Middle East, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mirrors his own emotional turmoil. Gessen, an editor at n+1 magazine who's confessed to the autobiographical elements of his novel, has a knack for capturing the inner lives of these expensively educated, romantically hapless men flailing in the dark. "It was important that he knew what he knew," Sam muses, "though how exactly it would come into play was impossible to tell."
Yet there's a similar shakiness to "All the Sad Young Literary Men," a feeling that while the Mark, Sam and Keith narratives mesh, they don't really synthesize into any coherent statement about sex, youth, men, women, and/or intellectualism. And, split as it is in three, the novel can't claim the depth of characterization that it might have had Gessen concentrated on a single character. Gessen gives these men a sense of importance. But greatness? On that front, everybody has a little more growing up to do.
Mark Athitakis is the arts editor at Washington City Paper. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.