Whether by coincidence or by some underlying psychological pull to such books, the novels I've read recently have all dealt, in some way or other, with fundamental questions of growing up and growing into an identity. This is an apt time in my life for the exploration of these questions. Whether, in the end, it is or not, this time feels momentous, like I'm on the precipice of some great change, as if everything before has been merely prologue and this—this!—is life. The plot is about to begin. Though thinking too much about the connections between these novels and my own life might be more introspection than is strictly healthy.
Right now I'll briefly discuss one of the novels, the most recent one. And maybe the others later.
The characters of Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men are familiar with the problem of slightly unhealthy levels of introspection. The novel (really, three novellas with little plot overlap) tells the stories of Mark, a seemingly perpetual graduate student in history who is struggling both to complete his dissertation and sort out his love life; Sam, who is determined to write the great zionist novel but lacks focus or conviction; and Keith, a Harvard grad political commentator/critic whose story is the only one told in the first person. While the latter shares a name with the author, it seems that these aspiring intellectuals all represent pieces of Gessen's persona, aspects of himself; he knows these characters because he is these characters.
They're constantly trying to make sense of their own lives in terms of historical forces. Mark sees parallels to his life in the actions of Russian revolutionaries (the subject of his dissertation) and Sam is always comparing his trials and travails to Israel's history. Who are they to become? What impact will they have on the culture? They are self-obsessed. (At one point, Sam becomes Very Concerned about his “google,” the number of hits that come up when his name is entered into google.) They're smart, but they lack focus.
In the end, the book was most successful in evoking a feeling—a place in time—in the lives of young people striving to matter, striving to think Big Thoughts and contribute in a meaningful way to our understanding of ourselves and our historical epoch. It was less successful as a character study or as a work of story-telling. The characters were less conceived as characters and more as aspects of the author's self. The tone seemed slightly at odds with the intention of the book. Everything a little too ironic, a little to satirical, for a book that is trying to say something earnestly. And I believe that it was trying to say something earnestly.
Tomorrow (or sometime.. you know...): The Magicians by Lev Grossman