Holding a writer to the standard of James Joyce is a bit like expecting haute cuisine from your corner deli, but the debut novels of Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich make the comparison irresistible. Gessen is a founding member of the literary magazine n+1, while Rich is a senior editor at The Paris Review. Gessen titled his book after an F. Scott Fitzgerald short-story collection; Rich comes from a family that includes writers for The New York Times (father Frank) and The New Yorker (brother Simon). Given such pedigrees, one expects more than a slab of Spam.
It’s especially difficult not to think of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when reading these novels, because both depict young men of burgeoning literary sensibilities. With Stephen Dedalus, Joyce set the agenda for any writer who sought to style his own coming of age as a journey both personal and literary, a sexual awakening that mirrors growing political consciousness. Striving to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” Stephen is neither sentimental nor calculatedly ambitious as he becomes the colossus against whom a writer may rebel, but can never escape. It’s hard to think of an American novel other than Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that attains the same level of personal integrity and national import. Today’s young guns have set their sights considerably lower than Ellison and his mid-century peers.
Gessen, in a thinly disguised roman à clef, traces the post-collegiate wanderings of three young men, but barely musters the craftsmanship of a Tuesday-afternoon e-mail. His primary protagonist, also named Keith, attends Harvard and aspires to be “noble like Lincoln,” or, failing that, to get laid as often as his debonair roommate. Overeducated and undersexed, he bounces between Maryland and New York, coming to realize that “there were things I did not know about life.” Naturally, he settles in Brooklyn.
The other two protagonists, confined to their own discrete narratives, are no more likeable than Keith. Sam modestly aspires to “disentangle the mess of confusion, misinformation, tribal emotionalism, and political opportunism” of contemporary Judaism by writing a Zionist epic. Finding that somewhat challenging, he reneges on his book deal and takes to Googling himself while trying to sleep with a sex columnist of the Carrie Bradshaw variety.
Mark is the least fortunate in this hapless trio, his dissertation in Soviet history having consigned him to Syracuse. Although his upstate exile in no way diminishes the cynical drive for status and sex that permeates this novel, Mark might want to hit the books a little harder: Several years of research have yielded no deeper analysis than that Lenin’s New Economic Policy “was nice.”
Benjamin Kunkel was the first n+1 editor to publish a novel, his 2005 Indecision serving as an obvious prototype for Gessen; the remaining editors will hopefully confine themselves to the bombastic excoriation of American culture that is their publication’s raison d’être. In the inaugural issue alone, targets included The New Republic (snooty), gyms (gross), David Foster Wallace (way too smart), and Russia (mean).
Gessen once lamented his contemporaries’ ignorance of Tolstoy or Flaubert, but in his own novel makes pronouncements like “beer pong, a truly stupid game” and “rap music was the music of the lonely.” One would be hard-pressed to pin such insights on War and Peace.
In The Mayor’s Tongue, Nathaniel Rich thankfully escapes the boundless solipsism that plagues Gessen, but without attaining his own goals. The Mayor’s Tongue could have been a literary thriller (if it were only more thrilling), or maybe a coming-of-age novel (if the main character’s progress through an improbable plot were worth caring about). As it stands, the book recalls the facile magical realism of Jonathan Safran Foer—with the exception that Foer at least believes in his own inventions.
Eugene Brentani, “unmoored and exuberant” upon graduating from college, wants to “lose himself to the cadences of . . . life,” which he does by sequestering himself in Upper Manhattan and working for a moving company. Eugene’s mother is dead, and he has told his estranged father that he lives in Florida. His only friend is Alvaro, a laborer from the Dominican Republic with literary aspirations.
While on a routine job, Eugene encounters Abraham Chisholm, the eccentric biographer of Constance Eakins, “a colossus of the last American century,” whose zest for life was only matched by his prodigious literary output. Since he’s also Eugene’s favorite writer, Eugene becomes enthralled by Abraham’s assertion that Eakins is thriving in the Alps, where he allegedly perished three decades ago.
At the same time, Eugene develops a romantic interest in Sonia, Abraham’s beautiful daughter and research assistant. Their nascent courtship is truncated when she decamps for Italy to find Eakins. Eugene, though, decides to follow her. But while many a young man has hounded his love to the ends of the earth, Rich cannot summon any but the most anemic rationales for his protagonist’s decisions: “I want to be with Sonia” and “She makes me feel real again” are as profound as Eugene gets.
Even this proves too much for Eugene, who—while seemingly embracing the adventure—suddenly becomes dispirited by his newfound commitment to Sonia and her father’s project. “You don’t care about the girl . . . nor about Abe, nor do you care if Eakins exists or doesn’t.” Well, then. One wonders why readers should care if the protagonist doesn’t. Seemingly aware of this, Rich throws a dizzying number of subplots into the fray: the fate of Alvaro’s unpublished manuscript, faint tremblings of a relationship between Eugene and his father, characters from Eakins’s work coming alive, and, most frustratingly, a protracted tale of two men, Rutherford and Schmitz, searching for meaning late in life, a parallel story that fits awkwardly into the main narrative and has little discernible purpose besides padding the word count.
It doesn’t help that Eakins is a third-rate Kafka with the ethical compass of Hannibal Lecter. A “whoremonger” of “Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites” with an impressive criminal record (murder, theft, et al.), Eakins is probably the last person in the world with whom Sonia should consort. But by the time Eugene reaches Eakins’s mountain retreat in the Alps—imagine Yaddo with a dash of Jonestown—and steals Sonia from his clutches, the plot has collapsed under the weight of its many unfocused ambitions.
Dale Peck once called Rick Moody the worst writer of his generation for squandering his literary talents; Gessen and Rich aren’t nearly as skilled, but their debuts are disappointments in a similar sense. The products of elite universities, and both editors at prestigious publications, they could have pioneered a new path for the rising generation of writers. Instead, they have chosen safe formulas whose faded pyrotechnics disguise a serious deficiency of what, in an earlier age, used to be called soul.