Fic­tion

Some­thing Red

By – September 8, 2011

An inter­lock­ing puz­zle of a sto­ry form­ing a unique, orig­i­nal whole, Some­thing Red presents a fas­ci­nat­ing pic­ture of a com­plex but lov­ing fam­i­ly but more impor­tant­ly of a com­pli­cat­ed and unnerv­ing time in recent Amer­i­can his­to­ry. The Gold­steins, a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion Jew­ish fam­i­ly con­sist­ing of par­ents and two teenaged chil­dren, nav­i­gate life in sub­ur­ban D.C. as the 1970’s draw to a close. It is a tricky and uncer­tain peri­od for the coun­try: the Iran­ian Hostage Cri­sis is rag­ing, the U.S. is fum­bling for a foothold in a new rela­tion­ship with Moscow, youth­ful rebel­lion is tak­ing a new and less ide­al­is­tic turn. The HUAC hear­ings, the Viet­nam protests, and the roil­ing 60’s are not all that deeply in the past and are still exert­ing a mighty pull on the present. The Gold­steins, like many oth­ers, must find a place in the new­ly emerg­ing decade and must dis­cov­er which emo­tion­al bag­gage can be jet­ti­soned, and which fol­lows and clings and can­not be dis­posed of at will.

This is superbly writ­ten fic­tion. Not only does time and place ring with per­fect­ly authen­tic pitch, but the char­ac­ters feel real enough to be your fam­i­ly. Gilmore’s tech­nique of fre­quent­ly repeat­ing a scene from a dif­fer­ent point of view adds sub­stance and depth to the nar­ra­tive and adds sym­pa­thy to the char­ac­ters. Each char­ac­ter is faceted and lay­ered, each has integri­ty and flaws, each has the capac­i­ty to grow. Sym­bols and themes are rich­ly and dense­ly woven into the fab­ric of the sto­ry and seam­less­ly appear and reap­pear through­out — heavy sym­bols on occa­sion but always pre­sent­ed with a light and deft touch. The care­ful read­er will want to fer­ret out and exam­ine these sym­bols as they appear so I will touch here on only two of the most major, that of sports, which means some­thing dif­fer­ent and per­son­al to each of the char­ac­ters, and that of food. Food is more than mere sus­te­nance here; it is pol­i­tics, it is liveli­hood, it is deca­dence, it is dis­or­der, it is betray­al, it is com­fort, it is love.

Care­ful­ly con­struct­ed and intri­cate­ly imag­ined, this book sat­is­fies as nar­ra­tive and deep­ens our under­stand­ing of an era not too long-gone and dif­fi­cult to forget.

Inter­view

Jen­nifer Gilmore’s first nov­el was Gold­en Coun­try (2006). Here, she talks about her newest nov­el, Some­thing Red, pub­lished in March, 2010, with Jew­ish Book Worlds Michal Hoschan­der Malen.

Cur­rent­ly Jen­nifer teach­es fic­tion writ­ing at Eugene Lang Col­lege, the New School. She lives in Brook­lyn, NY, with her hus­band, Pedro Bar­beito, and their Springer Spaniel.

Michal H. Malen: Both of your nov­els fea­ture immi­grant Jew­ish fam­i­lies. Is there a com­mon theme between both of them?
Jen­nifer Gilmore: There is but in a way that’s not very obvi­ous because when I wrote the sec­ond book, I wasn’t think­ing of it as a con­tin­u­a­tion of the first book. The first book takes place from the 20’s through the 50’s over sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions. The sec­ond book starts in 1979 and deals most­ly with the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion even though they are haunt­ed by the past. I think the con­nec­tion is in the way his­to­ry affects fam­i­lies. With the first book, I was inter­est­ed in how the fam­i­lies of immi­grants made Amer­i­ca and in this book I became inter­est­ed in how the cir­cum­stances these peo­ple found them­selves in affect­ed their lives. I think the only way to do that is over the gen­er­a­tions. Irv­ing Howe said that when, in the 50’s and 60’s, every­one left the inner cities and went to the sub­urbs, the Bren­da Patimkins, there wasn’t going to be any more Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture; every­thing was going to be just Amer­i­can. Of course, I would nev­er argue with Irv­ing Howe but I start­ed to think about that, about how going to the sub­urbs became so much part of the immi­grant expe­ri­ence and the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. It didn’t real­ly take any­thing away from it. I want­ed to con­tin­ue the sto­ry and real­ly had to do that with the next generation.

MHM: Some­thing Red is rich­ly tex­tured with sym­bols and themes. I don’t want to put them all out on dis­play before the read­er has a chance to encounter them in the book but I’ll pick two themes and ask what they mean to you. Let’s start with sports.
JG: I haven’t been asked much about the sports. I wrote my way into the sports sit­u­a­tion because of the Olympics and the Olympics are tied up with pol­i­tics. This is a nov­el about pol­i­tics. I want­ed the love of sports to come through and not be overt­ly polit­i­cal but, of course, it’s tied to 1956 and the Sovi­et Union.

Ben­jamin, my char­ac­ter who goes to Bran­deis, starts out as a typ­i­cal high school jock. I want­ed him to change and find his rad­i­cal self and he does that through pol­i­tics. But he does it with the Olympics through the boy­cott of the boy­cott. We don’t often asso­ciate Jews with sports and I want­ed to do some­thing with that stereotype.

MHM: Each char­ac­ter is involved in some way with issues relat­ing to food and sus­te­nance. Can you talk about why you made that choice? 
JG:
I want­ed to look at the way food plays out in a fam­i­ly. Every­thing in my fam­i­ly hap­pened at the din­ner table. I also want­ed to deal with how things played out in the world in 1979. When I told my edi­tor I want­ed to write a book that dealt with the grain embar­go of 1979, need­less to say she wasn’t doing cart­wheels. My father was an econ­o­mist and he wrote books about grain embar­goes, so that was a real­ly big deal in my house. The grain embar­go, for those who don’t know, hap­pened when the Sovi­ets invad­ed Afghanistan and Jim­my Carter tried for the first time to cut off food from the Sovi­et Union. I remem­ber think­ing of the Sovi­et chil­dren with­out any meat or bread or only stale bread. I remem­ber the feel­ing of Amer­i­can privilege.

There is the young girl in the book who has an eat­ing dis­or­der. She’s try­ing to con­trol her life, her sex­u­al­i­ty, her rocky ado­les­cence by what she puts into and takes out of her body. Her moth­er is a cater­er so it also has to do with the moth­er-daugh­ter rela­tion­ship. There is the idea of food as iden­ti­ty for all sorts of immi­grants. What they eat, how they eat, and how they get their food has so much to do with their lives. I want­ed to inves­ti­gate it in all those ways.

MHM: You’ve done an amaz­ing job of bring­ing an era to life using the music, the news and the social con­structs of the time. What tools did you use to make the late 70’s feel so imme­di­ate and close?
JG: I thought it would be much eas­i­er than writ­ing about the fur­ther past. It was set in 1979, and I was real­ly young then. It was actu­al­ly more dif­fi­cult than writ­ing about a time I nev­er expe­ri­enced like the 20’s and 30’s. I saw pho­tographs of the 20’s and 30’s and that gave me con­fi­dence to write about that time. But when it came to the 70’s, I could pic­ture the streets even though they’ve real­ly changed. I could just say the words Love’s Baby Soft” or Herbal Essence” and be instant­ly car­ried back there. I did not want to name drop in a way that got in the way; the char­ac­ters could real­ly allow peo­ple to have their own expe­ri­ences, like Gunne Sax shirts. You have to be care­ful not to be too kitschy. I took out my Pet Rock ref­er­ences; I didn’t want to be 70’s sil­ly. But I did want peo­ple to have the sense of a lived-in moment.

MHM: How does the family’s Jew­ish back­ground inform the char­ac­ters’ lives? 
JG:
Ini­tial­ly I thought, I would inves­ti­gate what it means to be Jew­ish cul­tur­al­ly, that this book is going to inves­ti­gate what it means polit­i­cal­ly. Reli­gion does come up here, though. The moth­er is dis­traught and knows she has to do some­thing for her­self, and her friend sug­gests she go back to tem­ple, Tem­ple Sinai, that maybe that’s what she needs. But she decides that she wants some­thing more like EST self-help empow­er­ment. She doesn’t think reli­gion is the right choice for her. And she is skep­ti­cal of her father who has moved out to Hol­ly­wood and recent­ly recon­nect­ed with reli­gion. She thinks he’s just deal­ing with his own mor­tal­i­ty. I want­ed to deal with the notion that much of this is choice. The choice for us is how obser­vant we are and that has a lot to do with how we were raised.

The father, Den­nis, grew up Jew­ish but for him it was more about pol­i­tics than reli­gion, and he doesn’t give the kids any­thing to go on and that trou­bles the moth­er. In the end, what hap­pens to those kids when they grow up? They’re going to have to find their own rit­u­als. They’re going to have to cre­ate their own idea of reli­gion even though they strong­ly iden­ti­fy as Jews. I don’t think they know what that means reli­gious­ly though.

MHM: Who are some of the authors you enjoy or feel have influ­enced your work?
JG:
I haven’t mod­eled my writ­ing on any­one but there are authors I admire. For this book, in par­tic­u­lar, I read The Book of Daniel. I had nev­er read Doc­torow before and that book was real­ly for­ma­tive for me. Every­one in this nov­el is haunt­ed by the Rosen­berg exe­cu­tion, so it real­ly con­nects. We hadn’t processed every­thing about it at the time he wrote it; we couldn’t. It would have been dif­fer­ent if it had been writ­ten now. It was inter­est­ing because it was unfiltered.

In gen­er­al, I’ve been influ­enced by any­one from Del­more Schwartz to Grace Paley. I learned a lot about dia­logue from her. Leonard Michaels, I adore. I love his essays. I feel like he’s got­ten sec­ond schrift to Philip Roth. I love a lot of Roth’s books, too, but I don’t real­ly love Roth any more. I did love Amer­i­can Pas­toral and The Plot Against Amer­i­ca, which were amaz­ing, won­der­ful books. Also, I read Mary Gateskill, who is a very brave writer in terms of the inner lives of her char­ac­ters. I kind of resist the idea of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion because we think of that as cos­tumey in some way and I’m much more inter­est­ed in the inner lives of char­ac­ters, although I do like set­ting them else­where. I love short sto­ries. I love Car­son McCullers.

MHM: Are you work­ing on some­thing new now? What can we look for­ward to?
JG: I’m work­ing on some­thing now that gets clos­er to the present. Maybe in some way I am still mov­ing my way through the gen­er­a­tions. I hope I’m going to be able to deal with it dif­fer­ent­ly but it’s still going to involve the way the past is with us all the time. The way mem­o­ry works is very inter­est­ing to me. 

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and chil­dren’s book reviews. She has lec­tured on a vari­ety of top­ics relat­ing to chil­dren and books and her great­est joy is read­ing to her grand­chil­dren on both sides of the ocean. Michal lives in Great Neck, NY and Efrat, Israel.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Simon & Schuster

    2.) The polit­i­cal land­scape is a pres­ence that direct­ly affects the lives of the char­ac­ters. Dis­cuss the polit­i­cal events and sit­u­a­tions that were rel­e­vant at the time? Do you have any mem­o­ries of these events? 

    3.) Food plays an enor­mous role in the nov­el — from the grain embar­go to Sharon’s cook­ing, to Vanessa’s eat­ing, to Tatiana’s meringue cook­ies. Dis­cuss the many con­texts in which Gilmore uses food, and the sig­nif­i­cance in each. 

    4.) How would you com­pare the pub­lic opin­ion of Carter and his admin­is­tra­tion in the sto­ry with cur­rent atti­tudes towards the U.S. gov­ern­ment? Can you relate to any of the char­ac­ters in respect to this ques­tion? Who, and why?

    5.) At the fore­front of the nov­el is Sharon’s mid-life cri­sis.” She claims that she had lost touch with the earth, with the actu­al ground of this plan­et, with her home and the peo­ple in her home, and that she float­ed, whol­ly unteth­ered, unsure as to what her role in the world now was and how she would ever get back down to real­ize it” (21). Do you think that this phe­nom­e­non can be seen as unique to her gen­er­a­tion of women? Or is her predica­ment timeless? 

    6.) The Olympics sur­face sev­er­al times in the nov­el. Sharon attrib­ut­es a greater pow­er to the tra­di­tion, one that is echoed in Ben’s ral­ly lat­er on. She remem­bers that it was the Sovi­ets who swept the medals that year. It was 1956, just before she’d moved East, and they’d watched the Rus­sians par­tic­i­pate for the first time; it was as if they were watch­ing the very moment they achieved world dom­i­na­tion” (27). Do you think Sharon and Ben were right to believe that the Olympics are out­side” of pol­i­tics? Has our per­cep­tion and the impor­tance with which we imbue the Olympics changed in the past three decades?

    7.) Den­nis mus­es that social­ism hadn’t saved any­one, had it? Peo­ple were still hun­gry and poor and cru­el and stu­pid. It hadn’t changed a thing” (42). It is clear that Den­nis sees the mis­for­tune of human­i­ty as inevitably fixed. Which char­ac­ters might dis­agree with him? What would they argue in their defense?

    8.) Vanes­sa, a teenag­er strug­gling with bulim­ia, recalls a set of Russ­ian dolls from her child­hood: Look­ing at them in a descend­ing line, she would won­der if all these pieces togeth­er con­sti­tut­ed one doll, or if they were real­ly twelve dif­fer­ent dolls, with sep­a­rate selves and souls” (47). How do you think this thought reflects Vanessa’s own strug­gle with self-iden­ti­ty? Do you think this ques­tion of mul­ti­ple selves car­ries over to any of the oth­er mem­bers of her family? 

    9.) Ben moves from being a high school ath­lete who hangs out with his team­mates to a more rad­i­cal, lifestyle when he goes to col­lege. How does this change when he choos­es to take action against the Olympic boy­cott? What parts of his per­son­al­i­ty do you see merge in these scenes?

    10.) Sharon and Vanes­sa liken Ben’s ral­ly speech to the call and response of syn­a­gogue.” How much does Jew­ish iden­ti­ty play into the nov­el? Do you think it is over­shad­owed by their nation­al­is­tic loy­al­ties? Why or why not?

    11.) When Ben retrieves Vanes­sa after their night of par­ty­ing, he won­ders, just as he said it, what it would mean exact­ly, but still he told his sis­ter, his lit­tle sis­ter, Vanes­sa,” he said. Let me take you home.” (246). What do you think this phrase means to Ben, and the rest of his fam­i­ly? How is it sim­i­lar or dif­fer­ent from Den­nis and Sharon’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion at the Ritz?

    12.) Dis­cuss the role of music in the nov­el. How does it high­light both the dif­fer­ences and the sim­i­lar­i­ties in the var­i­ous mem­bers of the Gold­stein family?

    13.) All the char­ac­ters seem to be react­ing in some way to the past, whether it’s their own child­hoods, or the lives of their par­ents. How does mem­o­ry func­tion in the nov­el and how does the past haunt the present? Does it affect the deci­sions these char­ac­ters make? Are they run­ning from the past or are they try­ing in some way to retrieve the past?

    14.) Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of the Snow Maid­en sto­ry, a recur­ring thread through­out the nov­el: The Snow Maid­en lis­tened to the song and tears rolled down her cheeks. And then her feet began to melt beneath her; she fell onto the earth and then she was gone, a light mist ris­ing from the place she had fall­en” (266). 

    15.) Were you sur­prised by the end of the nov­el? Dis­cuss the impor­tance of secrets and trust in the novel. 

    16.) In her last moments with Den­nis and her hus­band, Tatiana feels it nec­es­sary to clar­i­fy that it was, indeed, Helen singing at a Work­ers Par­ty years before. Why does she do this? What do you make of the rest of her con­fes­sion? Can you sym­pa­thize with her? In what sense?