One of my first readings of this summer was my colleague Jennifer Gilmore’s novel Something Red. I had heard Gilmore read an excerpt from it in a faculty reading series and was intrigued by its portrait of three generational of a Washington, DC intellectual Jewish family in 1980, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the grain embargo, Olympic boycott, etc. What I expected, and received, from the novel was a sharp, provocative portrait of our country at a crucial liminal time in its history. To do what Gilmore attempts a risky step for the author to take as there is still not a consensus about what this era meant or who were the good guys or the bad guys in it, and even her citations of popular songs such as Blondie’s Heart of Glass or (of a moderately earlier vintage) the Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight will not only mean different things to those who originally heard them on the radio versus those too young to know them or having encountered them as part of the archive of the past, but no tow people ‘old enough’ to ‘be there' may well agree on what the tonal/political valence of those memories are. This aspect was as I expected, although Gilmore's achievement is to make the two elder generations-those in their forties and in their seventies in the represented time of the novel—as or more interesting than the teenagers whose manners and bearing most incarnates what we now remember as ‘typical’ of the time.
This is what I expected from the book, and received. But what I did not expect—and what makes me not just suggest but insist that anyone who likes contemporary fiction read this book immediately—is the spectacular nature of the ending, which I am not remotely going to give away because experiencing it is such a convulsive treat. The ending so bravura, so striking that it conveys a pleasing element of fantasy, pleasing because in a generally realistic book it supplied the element of cognitive fantasy—one felt one was not just in the ‘real world; of 1980 but in your own fictional world, and, paradoxically, , as someone who remembers the era I wanted fiction, I wanted something autonomous, within the frame—and the dénouement gave it a hundredfold. What courage Gilmore must have had to do this, and what a great result—to have both the collective base of memory that draws the reader initially to the novel, and to then have the train of plot events which gives the novel its own subjectivity, its autonomy, makes its world one of its own interior integrity not dependent on any externals.
Without, though, knowing this was in store, I decided, as a readerly exercise, to cut out my own memories of the time period, to read it in a more abstract way; Interestingly I think even had I not done this by page 80 or so I would have extrapolated myself from my own awareness of the context (which can be both enabling and debilitating). Really the only character the context is intrusive with is Vanessa, though since she is the primary register of the indexical aspects (the pop songs, teenage fads etc.) of the item, this is probably necessary and won’t be minded by the younger reader. But as it turned out the novel went so far beyond its premise I did not need to do this.
Detail is very important in this book and I identified,, roughly, three kinds. The main mode of narrative detail, e..g. the mother Sharon's meals (hilarious and pitch-perfect) in terms of rendering the 'gourmet’ cooking; of the time Sharon’s musings on e.g. page 28. This is for me where the novel is so outstanding, as it is everyday detail but it is replete with a panoply of feelings, reverberations, sensory perceptions—the ordinary flow of detail is as rich as those on subjects that are the products of expertise; (the DC geography, the time period. Etc.). Then there is e. g. the kind of detail linked with Dennis, the father, , his memories of his own father’s Leftist organizations, where he is very aware of his own cognitive dilemmas, the details are background to these, but where his mind is stands out independently from the details. Then we have detail with Vanessa, and I have to say (again with the caveat that the younger reader, one who cares less about the time per se, won’t mind this) that I feel Vanessa is overly enmeshed in detail, she sues detail to constitute her identity, it’s Jimmy Carter, punk rock, whatever is around, with little judgment or filter. Part of this is because she is the youngest most undeveloped character, but I began to see her as oppressed by her immersion in detail, and hoped that when she became an adult she acquired more agency and perspective—she almost becomes a ‘camera’ at times, a passive recorded of data. The characters whose relations to detail did not have to evoke the period as such were actually much more captivating.
Vanessa’s elder brother, Benji—who would no doubt ask that I call him Benjamin—on the other hand I really enjoyed, and was very comfortable with him, his reactions to Brandeis, his relationships. In the end his relationship with his girlfriend Rachel was the most admirable one in the book, I felt there was real love there, and he also showed the greatest self-awareness—the urge to go out West with Rachel and get away from his family’s tangled dysfunctionality, even if utopian like his father's, Dennis's excursion to the West with his best friend' Len when young, still speaks to a diagnosis of the uncivil state of the family which lurks beneath its placid, liberal- bourgeois surface. . At first one thinks Ben is a hippie--come-lately, pathetic in coming to the party after it is over; in the end though he is a character of real discernment and offers hope for the tableau It is interesting how Ben’s sex with Rachel seems at least somewhat wholesome, whereas Sharon’s adulterous sex with the ‘social activist; Elias is tawdry—though here is a moment where Sharon thinks that after sex, he is either going to pay her or SHE will have to pay him is laugh out loud hilarious! In general, the men in this book seem healthier than the women, I think that is true in all three generations. In a sense it can be said that all three women are too passive, tether themselves to ideologies—Tatiana to the pieties of the Old Left, Sharon to the LEAP program, a nasty self-improvement cult which she admits is a displacement of her lapsed religious faith, Vanessa to consumer culture and sex she is too young to comprehend. I feel the men are at least aware of their shortcomings and try to get out of their debilitating circumstances ;I do not mean to overly psychologies the characters but this gender difference was pronounced., and even the writing of the genders was different.
Despite this, though, Sharon—the character furthest from me in terms of ;who she is’--was the character I most identified with in terms of her subjectivity, it is a very vividly rendered character, as is Dennis—the ultimate in-betweener, in-between ideologies (Washington and Moscow) , generations, and what he wanted to do with his life versus the reality of what he did with it. But Sharon one saw from the inside,--somewhat surprisingly because at first one thinks Vanessa is the main point-of-view character and Sharon is ‘the mother’) whereas Dennis was meticulously sketched from the outside—his uncertainty, unrealization, is fascinating and is itself extraordinarily realized.
Yet for all the presence of Sharon’s personality, I felt the men came off better than the women, act with more integrity. That in this case the author was female, and the reader male, indicates that, again what was achieved here was firstly an exciting plot, secondly a compelling setting, but thirdly and most importantly real fictional autonomy, fiction that in the end operation its own steam….
As a kind of ironic coda to a book preoccupied by various iterations of the Left--Gilmore’s portrayal of a kind of vestigial radicalism on the Brandeis campus, the very tail end of 60s-70s protest, is well rendered, though curiously this man was Brandeis’s most famous graduate of the period.