By Kristin Gore
Hyperion, 384 pages $24.95
In 1993, three months after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the Ms. Foundation sponsored the first national Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Not that 90’s feminism was particularly feminist—soon enough, American corporations found it worthwhile to let boys know that they too could aspire to work outside the home. The upshot for me was the final dissolution of 20th-century Oedipal pathos: After meeting his doofus superiors on Take Your Son to Work Day, it became impossible to harbor any real resentment toward my father.
Decent dads are hard to find in the workplace—that’s the key revelation in Sammy’s House, the second novel by Kristin Gore, Al’s second daughter. Introduced three years ago in her first novel, Sammy’s Hill, Ms. Gore’s heroine, Sammy, is a young female aide on the staff of Vice President Robert Gary, a former Senator and “good-looking man whose distinguished demeanor conveyed a sense of calm intelligence.” (No beard is mentioned.) Duly installed in the White House, Sammy quickly discovers that not all executive-branch figures are as upstanding: President Wye is a sycophantic cad with addictive tendencies—“he has trouble making decisions because he never wants to let anyone down”—while First Lady Fiona is, well, a bitch: “fiercely loyal to her husband and aggressively protective of his interests.… [H]er paranoia was legendary.” Can you say vast right-wing conspiracy?
In a fantasy resolution telegraphed from the first pages (and by the author’s name), Sammy’s House ends with the Wyes repentant—and the sure-and-steady Veep triumphant. Still, those looking for a Chelsea-Buddy-and-Socks tell-all can keep looking; perhaps despite itself, Ms. Gore’s novel turns out to be rather more ambiguous than mere Clinton remorse. Just as West Wing story arcs now seem about as consequential as those of The Office, Sammy’s White House crises are achingly quaint: Someone is leaking inside information to a Drudge-esque “opposition party” blogger; prescription-drug prices dominate political discourse; and the President may be hooked on “Focusid,” a souped-up Adderall not yet approved by the F.D.A. In other words, no war, no occupation, no terrorism—it’s hard not to side with Sammy’s reporter boyfriend Charlie when he complains that she’s working too hard. Generally a clever, likable narrator, she’s a wonkette without any interesting material.
And so, wittingly or not, Ms. Gore hints at the tenacious appeal of those fat and languid Clinton years: The boys and girls who went to work with their parents came away with the awful, wonderful conclusion that nothing really matters, that the adult world is just an extension of skinned knees and playground egos—even, or perhaps especially, inside the Beltway. A deceptively slight read, Sammy’s House finally asks the chick-lit, Gen-Y inversion of the alternate-reality question Philip Roth mined in The Plot Against America: What if recent history had played out its best-case scenario?
This post-9/11 thought experiment doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling fiction, even when the benchmarks are Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Devil Wears Prada. As something of a symptomatic artifact, however, Sammy’s House is terrifically unsettling: At least one Gore, it seems, still thinks Dubya is just an idiot. Indeed, the Wye-Gary ticket takes office after eight years of one President Pile, an oblivious moron who goes on to become a star on reality TV. He was a horrific chief executive, we learn, but there were no horrific consequences.
“By the time he’d wrapped up his seemingly endless catastrophic reign,” Sammy explains, “America was exhausted from his misleadership and relieved to finally be rid of him.”
The innocence and impotence of well-adjusted youth with well-meaning role models! If only getting rid of the present was simply a matter of waiting it out.
Jonathan Liu is a writer living in New York.