Stuff White People Like is the latest satirical meme sweeping the internet (well, the white people, anyway). I say this in part because I hope to make the new book part of my 52-in-52 meme, but also because it ties ever-so-neatly into my review of Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Because if you take the basic premise of SWPL—that is, upper-middle class intellectual whites form an incestuous subculture in which we all partake to some degree—and you turn it into a semi-serious pomo book by an upper-middle class intellectual white literary editor, you have All the Sad Literary Young Men.
Here’s my dilemma with the book: I’ll be the first one to delight in pomo literature, and self-referential jokes; I like books that bend the parallel threads of fiction and reality in until their curves finally touch. I get the inherent funniness of Gessen drawing these characters/caricatures which are simultaneously these brutally smart, educated men and also total disasters, personally and professionally. It’s a retooling of the “authenticity” argument of social conservatives—that is, painting pictures of theorists and ivory-tower academicians who are grossly out of step with the rest of the high-functioning planet.
What starts to bug me is that one of Gessen’s characters is Keith Gessen, and is likely about 98% based on the author, and 2% based on whimsy and plot expediency. Of the book’s three “overeducated” characters, Gessen is the one who actually succeeds, even if he doesn’t view it that way. Struggling Romantics, wannabe Zionists, thinly disguised versions of real-life persons (you can draw unequivocal lines to Noam Chomsky, among others): the book is pathetic to read.
So, the big question (drumroll): is Gessen, from the title page onward, skewering eastern blue-state intellectuals, graduate students, and fans of Derrida? Not likely. And yet one can’t escape the scathing critique that such people are ultimately feckless, living their presents through acquired knowledge of the past, struggling for intimacy in a self-image that doesn’t allow much for it, and the final destruction of the the idealism of one’s 20s. It’s depressing, really. Depressing, and with a plot that ultimately dribbles. The prose is wonderful, and occasionally witty, but I don’t like Gessen’s characters. Maybe we’re not supposed to like them; perhaps he made them all ultimately obnoxious on purpose, exaggerated models of social realists and Chomskyites and bibliophilic nerds who have flashes of brilliance and not much else.
I feel like Gessen’s tried to write a Great Gatsby for this new century, but it becomes more cynical, more self-aggrandizing, and ultimately more depressing: the act of being smart or knowing things has no correlation to happiness at all for Gessen’s sad literary men. It’s not a point that I support, as it seems simplistic to me. I realize I may be trying to ascribe a point to Gessen that he may not be making; it’s possible I’m wrong and this book is satire poking fun at what is inarguablly Gessen and his own crowd1. Whatever the book’s context may be, I just wasn’t all that impressed with it as a work. It tried being very modern, and was excruciatingly self-conscious about it. You can read it in order to sound cool at parties, or you could read something better.
- Gessen’s the founder of n+1 a trendy lit magazine[↩]