Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Joseph O'Neill, _Netherland_, & Keith Gessen, _All the Sad Young Literary Men_

I WOULD RATHER not cover two books in one entry, ordinarily, but these two have such a natural affinity that I am going to make an exception. They both belong to that large and growing set of novels in which well educated and intelligent young people settle in New York City, full of ambition and spunk, and get their clocks cleaned in every conceivable manner. Classic reference points include Plath's The Bell Jar and Didion's essay "Goodbye to All That"; recent examples include Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, parts of Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, and, erm, The Devil Wears Prada and its proliferating imitators.

The grandaddy of them all, certainly, is The Great Gatsby. Gessen acknowledges F. Scott's blazing of the trail in his title, which adds the word "literary" to the title of a Fitzgerald short story, and Gatsby is name-checked in both a blurb on the back of Netherland and, for good measure, in the copy of the inner flap of the jacket.

O'Neill's narrator, Hans van den Broek, like Nick Carraway is a newcomer to the city, works in the financial district, and has a much creamier and more melodious prose style than you would expect a worker in the financial district to have. Like Nick, he becomes friends with a fellow outlander with high-wattage charisma and a crazy dream -- Chuck Ramkissoon, whose Daisy is the ambition to make cricket popular in the United States.

Hans's wife and son return to London after 9/11/2001, leaving Hans to become even better friends with Chuck and to do a stint as a boho-tourist at the Chelsea Hotel. Turns out Chuck is, like Gatsby, mixed up with some shady characters, like Gatsby breaks a few laws, and like Gatsby ends up murdered. He gets no "you're worth the whole damn bunch put together" sort of eulogy from Hans, though, who has rejoined his family in London to live, presumably, happily ever after, a good deal less affected by his friendship with a doomed dreamer than Nick was by his.

All the Sad Young Literary Men is less ambitious but a lot more likable. Keith (who gets first-person narration), Mark, and Sam (who both get third-person narration) want to be in NYC but are by force of circumstance elsewhere (a D. C. think tank, the grad school of Syracuse University, a temporary office job in Boston), and are not just literary but politico-literary, writing (respectively) an analysis of the 2000 election, a dissertation on the Mensheviks, and a novel about Zionism. More precisely, they are not writing them, preoccupied with as they are with the problems making them sad, which have mainly to do with their relationships with women.

Why did I like this one better? It was funnier, certainly; it seemed to have a tighter grip on the pulse of the culture, noticeable in a number of small details about temping, about grad school, and so on. That the characters were (in their distinct ways) titanic screw-ups lent them much greater charm than Hans van den Broek ever musters. It evokes its era (the Oh-ties, or whatever we decide to call the last decade) much more palpably. I suspect that Netherland will turn out to be one of those novels that gathers all sorts of admiration and respect on its first appearance but rings ever more hollow with the passage of time. But then there's Chuck -- Chuck I will not soon forget.

I note from the back flap of All the Sad Young Literary Men's jacket that Keith Gessen was born in Russia. Hmm. Shteyngart, Bezmogis, Dumanis... they're everywhere.