I liked this book quite a bit, and I’m wondering right now if I’ll like it even more as I write about it. I find that happens, that as I work through thoughts about a novel and story and characters I somehow become more invested, as if I’m trying to argue for it myself. The book has to be interesting or serious enough for me to want to read it in the first place, and who wants to read books you really don’t like? Sometimes I just love a book and I’m excited that I have this blog and a forum to note it and analyze things; other times, going in, I’m not so sure.
I wouldn’t say that I’m ecstatic at having read AtSYLM so much as impressed and intrigued, and that seems to be the point. It’s not just a book one wishes one had written, a clear, well shy of jaunty record of the formation of adult identity and emotional vagaries of intelligent and intellectual young men as they move from college towards turning 30. The modern New York City version of such books, which perhaps start with This Side of Paradise and run through Bright Lights Big City and who knows what else, are valuable as contemporary portraits of young men in their time, revealing the psyche and anxiety of guys who are trying to get by or get ahead, get jobs (maybe) and get laid. If they’re topical, they mostly concern themselves with music and other varieties of fashion, including drugs and drinking practices of the day. but AtSYLM aims higher, is much more ambitious. The topics and timespan reach beyond art and culture to politics and social issues and global affairs, and the book tries to give a sense of what it was like to go to and graduate college when Bill Clinton was president, and to try to figure out how to be a grown up and an intellectual during the Bush years. All that, with the standard basic premise that hey, we’re guys, we mess up, we stumble around and get in scrapes, we’re never sure if we’re coming or going, especially where women are concerned. The difference here is that these characters are what I would hesitantly call my own type, the regular guy intellectual, the guy who both reads and plays sports. And they’re much more serious and engaged that I ever was. Gessen’s real ambition is that that he’s trying to write a novel of ideas and history and politics, one that shows its young protagonists navigating difficult and important political and social questions, not just cultural ones. It’s notable that Walter Benn Michaels published one of his critiques of the contemporary novel as art about art in n+1, Gessen’s new century Partisan Review, or at least I glanced at something along those lines on the website’s table of contents. This isn’t a portrait of the artist, it’s isn’t the romantic egoist becoming a writer, and it isn’t self-loathing yuppie scum. Gessen wants to be serious, but he wants to be the regular guy too, and the literary political New Yorker, a new century Philip Rahv. He does a very nice job of splitting the difference and capturing the times and attitudes of his trio of protagonists.
The three characters are a tidy device in themselves, and they show the solid structural forethought of the book. The narrator sets the tone of committed outsider at Harvard, a figure just close enough to the action to see how everything is so easy for the privileged few. His roommate Ferdinand cruises along effortlessly, a knowing, polished figure who drinks, dresses, and dates at the glittering center of the elite mainstream. The narrator doesn’t know how to do any of these things, he drinks too much when he drinks, studies too much, cares too much. The question with him is how he will find his way, eventually, in New York. Ferdinand will rise, undoubtedly, in his standard manner, but how will someone who is serious, who doesn’t do anything easily, find his way? He quits football but after graduation he goes home and delivers furniture for awhile, eschewing the easy jobs in New York. It’s a good story and an engaging character, particularly because he’s much more adaptable and with it than his beleaguered compadres.
Mark and Sam make the narrator look good, and so does Ferdinand, who doesn’t need us to root for him. They are two different, representative types, showing the concerns and possibilities for engagement and intellectual obsessions of serious young men. Sam has a calling to write the great Zionist novel, expecting and preparing to explain Israeli and Jewish identity, but he discovers that the formation of his own identity is just as complicated and darkly familiar as the insoluble political problems of Jerusalem. He thinks he gets it, but there’s always more to know and understand and his ambivalence grows. Years later, getting by as a disaffected clerk at a generic investment brokerage and his project abandoned, he goes to Israel to find out what’s actually happening. The experience broadens the scope of the novel and the experience is tense and yet banal, viewing a genuine social stalemate that hardly seems worthy of novelistic genius, even if he were to possess it: Leon Uris may have been a hack, but perhaps that was appropriate somehow. “The Palestinians were idiots, but the Israelis were fuckers” stands as the deeply informed new century intellectual’s statement on the subject.
Same is the would-be epic novelist who never writes his book and ultimately seems to discover that it was a bad idea after all, and Mark is the graduate student struggling to write his dissertation on the Russian Revolution. The narrator, like Gessen himself, is the son of Jewish Russian emigres, and Mark’s story shows yet another problematic path for the young intellectual, and it becomes a study of graduate student anxiety and despair. Just as Sam sees his romantic entanglements resembling Middle Eastern factionalism in tidy metaphorical ways, Mark is exiled to the snows of Syracuse like the ineffectual, idealistic Menshivicks he’s studying. Again, intellectual concerns are projected onto women who just happen to be in the proximity of our heroes, and that’s the structural conceit of the book, as it turns out. Mark falls in love with a young Russian woman, Sasha, just as, or because, he’s in love with studying the young and beautiful revolutionary Russia. But they’re married too young (the Bolsheviks win out), it’s not the right match, they separate and are both sad. There’s nothing sadder than an aging, single graduate student in upstate New York trying to finish a meaningless dissertation, except perhaps the failed, obscure secondary Menshivicks who contstitute his topic.
If this is an early, polished and yet still provisional version of the new novel of ideas and social engagement, I suppose it’s a promising start. It has all sorts of pregnant metaphors and subtext, and the hubris lies in its conception and ambition, but not in its characters. They’re just the same old dumbass American dudes we’ve seen and been ourselves for a long time now, but in this case they read books and care about politics, slowly coming of age against the backdrop of Bushworld. It was the best of times and the worst of times, as it turns out, to be a fuck up.