Posted by: zhiv | April 15, 2010

Gessen and Batuman #4: It’s not about the sex, it’s about the train ride

I started reading Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, which is actually the first of the n+1 novels/books, and it goes all the way back to 2005. It seems, at first glance, to be more of a typical coming-of-age novel, and the film rights were sold, etc. etc., so I’ll see soon enough how it fits into the larger picture. But one thing that I wanted to do before moving on to adjacent or new pastures is to make a few notes on how Elif Batuman’s book, The Possessed, complements and completes, in a way, Keith Gessen’s 2008 novel All the Sad Young Literary Men.

Gessen’s book is, I think, more impressive, but it’s a close call, and perhaps it more interesting to think of them as a single whole. I expect to know a little bit more after reading Kunkel’s novel, as far as sources and models are concerned, but Gessen accomplishes a number of neat tricks and artfully covers an impressive amount of ground as he creates his 3-in-1 or 1-in-3 characters, however you choose to see it. The reviews I looked at after reading and writing about Gessen’s book (including a very good one in the NYRB by Joyce Carol Oates) seemed to be caught up in the idea that he was describing not just himself but his intellectual friends. But I wrote about how, a couple of years later, the characters in the story seem more like three different versions of the author, allowing him to divide up his own concerns and areas of expertise. Since I’m wrong about most things, it’s probably easy enough to point to two specific people that he modeled the “non-Keith” characters on, but I haven’t seen it anywhere.

Gessen’s three characters range broadly between Clinton-to-Bush domestic politics, Israel, and Russian/Slavic studies. The women in the book are challenging foils, and they also play a fascinating metaphorical role in how the sad young men see and engage with the world. Gessen had enough on his plate in creating the three complementary portraits. What’s missing is a woman and female point of view that is on the same level as Gessen’s male characters. Enter Batuman. It’s almost as if she’s writing the distaff, and perhaps better version of Gessen’s book.

Gessen’s novel attempts to show how the young 30somethings of this newly-minted decade navigated through the surprising and shocking spiritual degradation of the Bush years. It was all a bad accident; something went horribly wrong, and their lives devolved in odd ways as the country itself seemed to be unraveling. Bad luck, not their fault. Batuman is a little bit younger, less affected by the carnage of character, but she goes on the same journey. Her book is more purely literary and much less political, although her trips to Russia and Uzbekistan make their own political/literary statements. She does provide, intentionally or no, the perfect female complement to Gessen’s book and its characters. Her sensibility is similar, with its Russian emphasis, which is presumably what led Gessen to publish her in n+1 in the first place, and in her Q&A she talked about him spurring her on, asking her “what’s next?” as soon as she finished her first piece for him. She knows and understands the world that he knows and writes about, or at least one of those worlds, the Russian one, and she delves into it more deeply and with a more engaging and charming approach. The woman’s touch is a necessary antidote, and it’s appreciated.

Gessen’s characters are somewhat stuck and immobilized, in the classic John Barth fashion (immobility in End of the Road, as I vaguely remember it–a great short book I loved and might want to reread) and zhiv Core Philosophy (Do Nothing) manner. His Zionist novelist can’t write his novel, and a number of reviewers seem to find the most satisfying part of the book to be when that character goes to Israel and sees firsthand the conflict he has studied and considered carefully. In Gessen’s approach and structure, a little movement counts as a lot, and that one is especially well played. But the character who is closer to Batuman’s world, very close in fact, is Mark, the grad student trying to finish his dissertation on the Mensheviks. Gessen’s insightful male trick of turning women into metaphors is presented quite clearly in the storyline, and it’s something that smart young guys do all the time without even being conscious of it (and I never really thought about it myself in these exact terms before–am I wrong, or is this a big part of what Romanticism is really about? Did I just miss this lecture in my own haphazard education, and everybody knows this but me?) Mark falls in love with Sasha, a human version of Russia, and he marries her. But it doesn’t work out–he’s going to have to finish his dissertation and learn to live without her, simultaneously. His love for obscure Russian history ends at the same time as his relationship, and he realizes that nobody cares about his dissertation, which he himself loathes. Eventually he goes off to be a grown up, and his life picks up immediately when he leaves upstate New York and moves down to the city, but it entails leaving his idealism and romanticism about studying Russia and its revolutionary political history behind. The thesis is exactly similar to Batuman’s argument about cultivating sensibility, but Batuman doesn’t have the same romantic projection. But thinking about it, maybe I’m wrong about that and it’s there in Batuman, and her romanticism shows itself when she plays the card even more decisively than Gessen in her final essay, The Possessed, as she analyzes the attraction of the holy grad student monk, Matej, and breaks down Rene Girard’s theory of desire along the way. I wrote about how Batuman’s book shows the value of going to grad school and the necessity of escaping it at the same time, and the same concept is layered into Gessen’s book. Gessen casts his net a bit wider, presenting a pair of alternatives besides the graduate school route, but neither of them is preferable. Each of his stories outlines the struggle of being serious. The sophistication and sensibility to write for n+1 does not come easily, I guess.

Batuman hides her struggle and her heart, for the most part, while Gessen makes sure that each of his characters wears their intellectual romanticism on their sleeves. Batuman is ironic, she’s both in the changing world she occupies and outside it at the same time, taking a writerly stance. She works hard to make the argument for going to graduate school and developing her literary sensibility, but she shows how the writer can supersede the scholar and still be successful on the academic side at the same time. She takes up the role of the smart younger girl who hangs out with the guys, they all love her, and she gracefully avoids all of the pitfalls and mistakes they’ve made. The critical, obvious difference between Batuman and Gessen and his characters is that she’s the opposite of immobile. She’s in Samarkand and doesn’t know how she got there, she’s in St. Petersburg, in Florence. In her introduction she leaves behind Harvard and New England writing workshops to go to Stanford and San Francisco, like some Beat poet, and she starts her book by leaving her apartment and rushing to the airport. Mobility is her keynote, and this view from the female side of the equation is very different. Gessen’s characters see women as idealized reflections, bright and stationary, not so different from Daisy Buchanan’s steady light across the bay–until they disappear and leave, at least, leaving the sad young men on their own. Perhaps Mary McCarthy, a Batuman forebear if there ever was one, playing against Gessen’s Philip Rahv, was writing about the mobility of female desire in The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit even more bluntly than I realized: it’s not about the sex, it’s about the train ride. This week Elif Batuman is in the New Yorker, in Turkey and writing about food and sustainability at the crossroads between East and West. What is this gifted young woman doing exactly, and where is she going? We can’t wait to find out.

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