Human Capital

Something Red: A Novel BY Jennifer Gilmore. Scribner. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.

The cover of Something Red: A Novel

Jennifer Gilmore’s Something Red opens in the summer of 1979. The hostage crisis in Iran will soon play out; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is imminent. The political stakes are high, but passions are dulled. The Summer of Love and Freedom Summer are dusty memories. Kent State has become a legal settlement. Jimmy Carter, overwhelmed by the nation’s “crisis of confidence,” sits down in the Oval Office to describe the country’s malaise.

At this torpid juncture, Gilmore swoops in on the Goldstein family, gathered at a backyard picnic table in DC to celebrate young Benjamin’s departure for freshman year at Brandeis, the alma mater of Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman. We meet Dennis, a middle-aged bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture; Sharon, a Silver Palate–type caterer; their sulky teenage daughter, Vanessa. We also meet both sets of grandparents—Sharon’s parents, Helen and Herbert, Hollywood conservatives who probably turned in a few colleagues during the Red Scare; and Dennis’s parents, Sigmund, a socialist of the old school, famous enough to have made the pages of Benjamin’s college textbook, and Tatti, Russian-born and thankful for her exodus from the Soviet Union but nonetheless nostalgic for her home country’s past excesses, such as Fabergé eggs and the diamond-studded carriage for the czar.

While politics is in the air, it isn’t clear how hard the wind will blow. The party planning provides the hint:

They’d been lying in bed watching President Carter talk about the energy crisis, and she’d opened her night-table drawer, taken out an emery board, and begun to saw at her nails. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America, Carter had said, and Sharon had turned to her husband. “Let’s have a family dinner for Ben.”

Gilmore explores this ambivalence—how, even for the politically cognizant, personal concerns trump social ones almost all the time. Activist meaning seeps into every aspect of the Goldsteins’ lives, from the invite list at Beltway social gatherings to vegetarianism, sexual liberation, Olympic boycotts, Black Flag, Zionism, and the duty of dating couples to support each other’s rallies. But when all is said and done, the characters obsess mostly over the melancholy of families aging out of their assigned roles: babies transforming into acid-taking college kids, lovelorn college kids mutating into married philanderers.

Gilmore’s conscientious creation of the world of DC hardcore clubs, grain embargoes, and Grateful Dead tour buses demonstrates that she did her homework, or lived it. And she succeeds, with steady pacing and plenty of cultural touchstones, at conjuring a feeling of claustrophobia in which not even a ride down the street on a skateboard can be enjoyed without first considering the politics: “Ah, skateboards. Yet another slice of youth culture that, despite its gender-neutral quality, had always been verboten. Period, Vanessa’s father had said. It’s a death wish.”

To see the troubles of 2010 surfacing in this early-’80s world can be almost satisfying. It will not be the energy crisis that will obsess future generations, but the Soviets invading Afghanistan; not the platform sandals worn by every girl at Vanessa’s school that will dominate trends, but those lone skateboarders. And focusing on the politics of food, instead of those of energy, allows Gilmore to cross-pollinate: Sharon frets over locavore issues for her catering business, Vanessa attempts to control the politics of her body through binges and purges, Dennis struggles with the US policy of halting grain exports to the Soviet Union, and Tatti bakes the cookies that will be delivered to her brother there—family tradition trumping, in this case, the restrictions of cold-war policy.

But missing from these meticulous political portraits is any trait that comes across as quirky or even passionate. Gilmore depicts political activism without the anger, utopian visions with no hint of the peculiarities of an Abbie Hoffman or, for that matter, a Jimmy Carter. For stretches of the book, this blinkered outlook is best summed up in Vanessa’s sulky prophecy of how an upcoming parents-weekend visit to Brandeis will unfold: “It’ll just be me and bitter Dad and burnt Mom heading up to my hippie brother’s dorm to be a family. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?”

We learn this family’s every thought, every detail they see, every fold of their flesh. But not one of these people conjures a piercing observation or holds on to an emotion for long. Vanessa, abandoned by her brother, can wake up naked on a strange campus in broad daylight after having experienced “unmitigated fear” that she had sex with his friend while tripping; within a few hours, she’s canoodling with that friend and thinking her brother looks sweet leaning on his girlfriend’s shoulder. One wishes Gilmore had made at least one character a true skinhead or a rabid feminist.

Gilmore is generous enough to provide plenty of diversions for the reader, including lots of sex. And a few scenes stir the pulse with thriller intrigue. But by then, so much ennui has come and gone that readers will have found their own malaise.

Elizabeth Mitchell is a political journalist and the author of W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty (Hyperion, 2000).