A debut novel from Russian-born translator Gessen that skewers the literary and romantic ambitions of three well-educated, tightly wound young men.
This black-comedy-in-stories alternates among three protagonists, Mark, Sam and Keith, who have little contact with one another but who have in common age, bafflement and hunger for literary fame. Mark is a Ph.D. student in Russian history who’s dismayed again and again to find that erudition about the Mensheviks and finely honed skills of historical analogy avail him little—fine, avail him nothing—in sussing out his erotic life. They aren’t much help, either, in getting his dissertation finished. Meanwhile, Sam gets a contract early in his 20s to produce a “great Zionist epic,” but it quickly runs aground, and he has to pay back the advance. Soon he’s reduced to temp work doing spreadsheets, and to watching his Internet presence (his identity!) tragically dwindle, an index of squandered promise. In one delightful scene, he calls Google and asks if they might “shift the algorithm a little” until he can get back on his feet. When this draws an uncomfortable laugh, Sam waxes indignant: “You couldn’t do anything in this country anymore…without someone thinking you were a creep.” Finally there is Keith, a subtle, earnest cultural critic and Russian immigrant who seems to have much in common with his author (Keith’s sections are presented in the first person). Gessen strikes a marvelous balance between pitilessness and affection toward these young men, and manages the impressive feat of being simultaneously savage and tender.
A fiercely intelligent, darkly funny first novel.