Not sure what to make of this book as I'm not sure what to make of most contemporary fiction.
I certainly read it fast enough. At some moments I felt like I was reading "Chasing Harry Winston" for guys. And is that totally inaccurate?
Ok, let me back up. First I saw this book reviewed everywhere. The plot of it sounded lamely simplistic. I was intrigued by the various parallels to my life, of course. Academia, Jewish, Russia, 2008. But I kept thinking, why does this book appear over and over being reviewed? How does someone get shit like this published?
That was a while ago, but recently I started learning more about Keith Gessen and N+1 and I realized that he already had some clout. So at the Brooklyn Book Festival I'm perusing and I spoke to Adrian Tomine briefly, getting him to sign a copy of "Good-bye" by Yoshihiro Tatsumi for me. (he was not that interesting, but seemed tired, so... He did sign the book humorously and told me he moved to Brooklyn because he got married to some woman who is now studying at LIU or something)
Etc etc...so while walking over I'd seen the N+1 table and bought their latest issue out of curiosity, from the girl who I think is now a t-shirt model on their website. Walking back from Tomine's table I see a big happy-looking guy at the N+1 table who I pass by and then give a double take, realizing that this must be Gessen. He stares at me for about a second but I keep walking because I'm going back to my seat the Jimmy Breslin/Pete Hamill talk. was there recognition of spirit...perhaps he noticed me because I was wearing a press badge, although I didn't cover anything.
So, although I don't know if that was really him or not, something about the moment stuck with me and I bought his book a few days later. Despite the flaws, I really, really liked most of it. There was a great deal of it that spoke to me.
In particular, the character of Sam (WAHT!) seemed very sort of empty to me, in some ways. Very shallow and annoying. I kept thinking that his character would be dropped somewhere, and at the end we would hear that his "zionist epic" had made him a famous, rich author. And I imagined perhaps Sam is based on Jon Safran Foer.
Instead though, reminding me a lot of "The Gift," the book that Sam is in becomes the book he's talking about, in the "Jenin" chapter, which was one of the book's best and most memorable parts. Cutting away from the "surfaces" of life and the self-analysis and reflection, it got to something real.
Anyways, the other stuff was also good too. J. Carol Oates' comparison to Fitzgerald seems to fit in some ways. Gessen in an interview I read said he was going for honesty, and reality, and that seems to fit a lot too - and to excuse some of the apparent vapidity.
I guess the highest compliment I can give is that he makes the contemporary world and life seem a bit more exciting, somehow.
Although if I wrote a book it wouldn't be anything like that.