Assimilating questions

In Keith Gessen's first novel, three young American men grapple with their identities and flailing urges for greatness.

Jerusalem old city 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem old city 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
All the Sad Young Literary Men By Keith Gessen Viking 256 pages; $24.95 It is 2000, the votes for the president of the United States have been counted, and discounted, sending half the nation into a period of despair. Meanwhile across the Atlantic a second Palestinian uprising is shaking the already uncertain ground of the Jewish homeland. Jews in America, even young men caught up in the mundane drama of their privileged lives, feel the tremors. Samuel Mitnick, a 25-year-old graduate of an Ivy League school with lofty ambitions, is one of those men. He wants to write the "first great Zionist epic," we are told when first introduced to him in Keith Gessen's new novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, which charts the lives of three young intellectuals struggling for success and, most of all, recognition. But Sam, Mark and Keith, whose almost indistinguishable tales trade off in this book, all seem to suffer from the same crisis of purpose. Theirs is a world where sometimes "it is better to stay drunk and drugged," as Mark says while struggling to complete a dissertation on the Mensheviks, an unsuccessful group of Russian revolutionaries. And drunk they are, sometimes on alcohol, but more often on the flurry of women who come in and out of their lives, or the desire for recognition that is too often without substance. It's this type of drunkenness that keeps these men from being able to follow through with their ambitions. Sam argues over the history of the promised land in bed with his competing girlfriends - one a right-wing Israeli, the other a left-wing American - and with the handful of other characters who dot the landscape of Gessen's fictional debut. He has yet to visit Israel, he mistakes the Hebrew alphabet for "Tetris pieces" and is perpetually trying to sort out how he feels about the very complicated Zion he wishes to feature in his magnum opus. He is prevented from doing so in part, because his personal life, equally confused, always takes precedence. Decades after the sex-obsessed fantasies of Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy, Gessen gives us a world of men equally caught up in their romantic entanglements, only here their sexual exploits are a whole lot tamer. Equally tame are the feelings Gessen's protagonists have toward their intellectual subjects, be it Israel (Sam), the Russian revolution (Mark) or the American political landscape (Keith). All three are the successful products of assimilation - so successful, they have lost their ability to weigh world strife against the mundane attentions that occupy their lives. Israel's political situation is less of a concern than Sam's horror over his shrinking Google hits. Mark's obsession with the Russian Revolution of 1917 is only the backdrop to the much more significant fluctuations in his love life. While at the library he looks up porn, he thinks of Lenin on the stair master. It is a post-modern world, and all semblance of order has been turned on its head. Israel is no exception. Even the most basic of all post-World War II anthems, "Do not forget," has been co-opted by the other side. The Israelis were becoming "forgetful," we are told, "it was the Palestinians who seemed to remember everything." Dismissing Leon Uris as a "cheap sentimentalist," Sam approaches his subject with the trepidation typical of Jews who have grown up in a post-1967 America, where Israel is no longer seen as the underdog in need of unconditional love. That's not to say that Israel isn't on the minds of American Jews. It is, but like Sam, their relationship to the country has been complicated by more than 30 years of occupation and the most successful assimilation story to date. So he argues over the Holocaust, the events of 1948, the territories and what to do about Jerusalem. "All right, east Jerusalem, they can have east Jerusalem!" he proclaims rather absurdly over dinner with Arielle, his ex-girlfriend. It was the hundredth time in the past month Sam had given up east Jerusalem. But as he negotiates peace from afar, the pages of his epic remain blank. The advance he receives on his book is quickly diminishing, as are his Google hits. He is clearly anxious about his own erosion, or failure to act. He juggles the women in his life, just as he juggles Jerusalem (To keep or not to keep?). And in the end, like many young men caught in a similar predicament, he flees. But where 40 years ago, Philip Roth's Portnoy winds up in the bosom of a redheaded Israeli socialist in awe of a state where even the bus driver is Jewish, Sam barely sets foot in the holy land before he boards a bus to Jenin. It is in the land of Palestinian refugees that Sam tries to reorient himself. Winding through the Judean Hills Sam searches for answers. He looks for tanks and for violent settlers, expecting "the earth to open its great maw and roar at all the trouble and the foolishness going on." But he doesn't find what he's looking for. Even Jenin, the heart of Palestinian resistance, doesn't seem to shake Sam of his ambivalence. While there, a suicide bomber kills five in Jerusalem, and Sam watches his Palestinian buddies smile at their feat. He is taken to the refugee camp where a man recounts digging for the limbs of a friend after Israel demolished a building. On his last night there he finally encounters an Israeli tank, and just barely escapes a bullet. But he emerges as confused as ever. His conclusion - Palestinians are "idiots" but the Israelis are "f--kers." In the end, neither side adequately compels Sam, who winds up, true to the book's title, a "sad young literary man" abandoning his epic for law school. As he runs away from the tank he so waited to see, he leaves behind his greatest ambition. Some who read this book may be tempted to draw conclusions about Israel's failure to occupy the minds of today's young Jews. That like the other adolescent preoccupations that drive these men, Israel will become just one on the list of women with whom they sleep. But Sam's half-hearted obsession with Israel is no different from that of his fellow compatriots who approach their subjects with equal ennui. By most accounts Israel is waning in the lives of young Jews. But in Gessen's book it is not Israel that fails to occupy these men, it is these men who fail to be occupied by anything outside themselves - and the book suffers as a result. There is a lot of striving in these young men, but even their striving falls flat. One can only care so much about characters who fail to convince their readers that they themselves care about anything. If these men are truly representative of our times, then surely Israel is in trouble; but so is the rest of the world which too will be brushed aside for more significant matters, such as girls and Google hits.