There’s a mordant joke running thru Francis Spufford’s spectacular Red Plenty that can be illustrated in the following story. A self-taught Armenian monk travels to Oxford to importune the most distinguished mathematician in England. The monk eagerly presents his findings to the grand Don. After listening to the monk, and observing some of his formulas, the mathematician says to him, “I have good news and bad news.” The monk replies, “What’s the good news?” “You are a genius,” says the mathematician, “and you’ve invented geometry.” “Great!” says the breathless monk. “What’s the bad news?” “Euclid invented it a couple of thousands years before you did.” (I know, I know—please don’t post comments noting that Euclid didn’t actually invent geometry—the story is heuristic!)
And so it is with the monkishly asocial mathematician, Nobel Laureate, and loyal Marxist, Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich. Kantorovich spends a good portion of his career trying to construct a simulacrum to the market axiom of supply and demand that will be compatible with Marxist doctrine and the political exigencies of the Soviet leadership class. That simulacrum is only necessary because the original formulation is so, well, un-Marxist. Kantorovich and his protégés are revisited throughout the book as they feverishly refine their findings, always seeking to have an answer to the inevitable question from the alternatively bored and bombastic bureaucrats along the lines of, “This isn’t a market concept, is it?”
What a theme this is, managing to contain the touching, the ridiculous, and the world historical all rolled into one. Can you imagine how much cognitive firepower these scholars had to have to reconfigure supply and demand, and via “shadow prices” contrive to fit it into a Soviet Marxist schema? The difference between Kantorovich and the Armenian monk is that Kantorovich understands that he’s trying to work around an already existing operational mechanism. But, if anything, that only makes his prodigious efforts that much more astonishing, yet absurd.
Of course, you might say that the real joke is that, not only do the militant mathematicians and economists believe in the utopian dream of Soviet Marxism, but so do (in their violent, often cynical way) some of the Party higher ups, notably Nikita Khrushchev himself. But reality also imbues Red Plenty with even more poignancy. While there are a full component of knaves and con artists populating Red Plenty (and a couple of erstwhile party stalwarts who become, over the decades, courageous dissidents) it is the idealists of two stripes whof provide the book with its ballast. One group is composed of people like Kantorovich and his colleagues. These are techno-idealists, not that different in form, if not content, from their “end of ideology” post-scarcity contemporaries like Daniel Bell and Clark Kerr in the United States.
And there are also the naïve believers. From the starry eyed students who grow up to be depressed, mid level bureaucrats to First Secretary Khrushchev. The latter has a simple faith in the Soviet Union as the potential (if not yet actual) embodiment of a scientific ideology which contains humane answers to the problems of economic need and thus, inexorably, social alienation. Red Plenty is thus a lament for several different strands of leftist utopian thinking as their adherents pushed up against the first Marxist state, which in its post-Terror iteration had become, in one of Spufford’s most arresting phrases, an “empire of inertia.”
And, neither as a work of fiction nor as a synthetic history (more on this immediately below) does the slightest sense of anachronism mar the narrative. We readers are really returned to a post-Khrushchev moment when economic reformers and intellectuals could imagine that Brezhnev and Kosygin would allow them—only unreliable eggheads, after all—to usher in a new era of broadly based prosperity and artistic and intellectual creativity.
The form of the book has received a lot of attention, and that is both understandable, yet somewhat overplayed. On the cover—for those who still indulge book covers—Kirkus calls Red Plenty a “genre-resisting history.” Another review says that the Spufford “maps out a literary genre of his own.” I don’t think this is right. Red Plenty neither resists its true genre—historical fiction—nor do its historiographical endnotes make it a history. Augmenting the known historical record with invented interior monologues for “real” historical characters like Khrushchev and Kantorovich (how could they be anything but invented?), and, beyond that, creating fictional characters and scenes is fiction. But the book’s deep grounding in history makes its genre familiar to us. We’ve known what to call books like this since Lukacs’s The Historical Novel. They are…historical novels. For the hell of it, I started thinking of novelists at least some of whose work could be categorized as historical. Unbidden, the following names randomly popped into my head and I noted them in my iPhone:
Then I got tired of the exercise, but you get the point. The one formal breakthrough that the book perhaps has made—and I’m betting somebody will mention other novels that have done this too—is a completely factual, meta kind of footnoting (not at all playfully and self-referentially “literary” as in Infinite Jest or Pale Fire). The notes list precisely the sources (all of which are secondary—Spufford can’t read Russian) of everything in the book that is, in fact, part of the historical record. They also indicate which characters, scenes, and dialogue are invented. This is the magician showing us exactly how he pulled the rabbit out of the hat, a kind of less abrasive, Brechtian distancing effect.
The endnotes are a great service to a reader interested in the underlying history—as I am—but, if they did not exist, Red Plenty, no less than, say, Libra, would stand as a wonderful work of fiction. Spufford can seemingly write any kind of scene that any writer might possibly try. I wonder if he assigns his own prose to his university writing classes. The book, like Jennifer Egan’s recent, deservedly acclaimed, A Visit from the Good Squad, is a series of interrelated short stories with a cast of (mostly) recurring characters which compose an organic, connected world across time and space. This is a world recognizably an analogue to “our” world, but whose emotional resonances are inherently its own. All of it is an artifact of the author’s imagination. To claim that this is a dramatically “new” genre is to diminish Spufford’s extraordinary artistic accomplishment and turn it into merely a kind of formal trickery.
And, like Egan, Spufford has a gift for inhabiting the consciousness of many, vastly different characters. Spufford is particularly good at writing in the voice of women at different points in their lives. Two stand out: Galina is a party stalwart (and invented character) who is first seen as a firebrand university student whose job it is to humiliate a young, African American spokesman for an American trade show in Moscow. (The multiple social and ideological ironies in this episode are among the many great set pieces in the book). Later in time, Spufford shows us the same woman, now in her thirties, pregnant and despondent, and faced with the dawning realization that her life will forever be tied to the charming mediocrity who swept her off her feet years earlier. There is also Zoya, a scientist (based, as Spufford tells us, loosely on an actual, prominent scientist, Raisa Berg, but entirely fictionalized here). We first see Zoya as young single mother and no nonsense geneticist. At a party with new colleagues, she finds herself growing attracted to a grad student in economics. Spufford exquisitely depicts the dance of desire that these partners tentatively enter. Later, Zoya puts her career on the line by signing the famous letter in protest of the trial of the dissident, Alexander Ginsburg. And, for whip cream on top of the sundae, Spuffords includes the first description of the process of reification I have ever read coming from the mind of a fictional character, an exhausted, young economist walking thru a rural backwater to visit the family of his fiance: “….anytime you start to mistake the big enclosing terms you use for the actions and things they represent, just you remember this.”
Red Plenty concludes with the image of Khrushchev, alone and forgotten, wondering if things might have been different. “So much blood”, the old dictator muses. It could only have been justified “if it had all been prologue, all only the last spasms in the death of the old, cruel world, and the birth of the kind, new one.” To me, Spufford here evokes Brecht again, more directly and specifically his great, disquieting poem, “To Posterity,” narrated by an aging, rueful, yet unrepentant Stalinist who says, “Alas, we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind.” And then Brecht’s narrator asks for forgiveness.
It is not so cut and dried for Spufford’s Khrushchev. He is deeply uncertain—caught on the contingencies of both history and fiction—in a way that his Brechtian comrade is not. And he cannot shake the feeling that merely routinizing the machinery of autocracy, halting (mostly) Stalin’s death machine, cannot justify either his life or the grandiose illusions to which he dedicated it. Spufford leaves almost the last word to his genius mathematician, Kantorovich—Kantorovich, working the production formulas thru in his head over and over again—surely, one day he will figure it all out! And then the omniscient close, a Joycean yearning, but for something much larger than the self: “Can it be, can it be, can it ever be otherwise?”
Will we ever know what otherwise is? Did we ever?