Sunday, July 06, 2008

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

With all the buzz and backlash about this novel by one of the founders of the excellent literary magazine N+1, I never really registered that it's a comedy (or as they might say in tv-land, a dramedy), and I found much of it really really funny. Partly because some of the behaviors of the sad young literary men are highly recognizable to me from my collegiate and post-collegiate years. While some readers automatically react against Ivy League novels (demned elitism, they cry), I think lots of people would find this novel funny.

But for budding novelists, the thing I'd most like to point out is that Gessen, like any number of novelists, writes about a group of characters and rotates sections between them. A lot of writers when creating a group choose one of each--a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, or a bad boy, a good boy, a funny boy, a serious boy (you know, John, Paul, Ringo, and George)... what I'm trying to say here is they create characters who are noticeably different in some way. Partly I suppose to set the sections apart and partly to be able to write about different behaviors. And often that works just fine. But one of the effective elements of this novel is these three guys are pretty similar. Of course they have their distinctions and different things happen to them, but they are, as so many friends are, overlapping in lots of ways. And because Gessen still keeps each of the sections/characters interesting (and different enough) the novel ends up having a wider and deeper scope then it might have otherwise. It's a novel not just about three different guys who have loose connections to each other, but it's about a certain type of person at a certain point in his life. And we get to see that type engage in slightly different behaviors etc--so he feels pretty well-examined, satsifyingly so, by the end.

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