Good and Plenty

by Rich Yeselson on June 5, 2012

 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:





Dos Passos




TC Boyle


Frederick Exley


Hilary Mantel


James Ellroy


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?



William Timberman 06.05.12 at 3:32 pm

I like to think that many of us here, with all the delicious erudition and finely-honed irony available to us, are still dedicated to otherwise, and always will be, not matter how things turn out for us. The temporal is always cruel, the eternal always just around the corner. The trick is somehow to harness them together. Volunteer magicians who promise to do this come and go while we mutter to ourselves and wonder if our hopes of a cumulative progress are more than a collective delusion.

Spufford captures all of this with astonishing grace and clarity. Are there others who do this as well as he does? Yes, but while timeliness isn’t everything, it does make Red Plenty resonate with this contemporary reader in a way that, say, War and Peace, or Aufstieg and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny does not. I’m very grateful that it exists now, when I really need it.


deliasmith 06.05.12 at 3:54 pm

Jennifer Egan’s recent, deservedly acclaimed, A Visit from the Good Squad

“A Visit from the Good Squid”, surely?


straightwood 06.05.12 at 3:55 pm

There is a silent and undocumented resistance movement in every large institution. It is made up of people who secretly act on behalf of mankind, in cunning disregard of their orders, and often at the expense of their material interests. That is why unmaintained bridges are still standing and why good teachers still exist in the poorest school districts. That is why state and corporate crimes are revealed by those who risk harsh punishment. Nothing can fully extinguish the human desire to do right.


mdc 06.05.12 at 4:06 pm

[Pedantry:] And there aren’t any “formulas” in Euclid, either.


Pascal Leduc 06.05.12 at 4:48 pm

Reading Red Plenty and this seminar have really made me wish that Canada and other western nations generated their own socially optimal shadow prices. Simply as a policy tool to better inform decisions towards regulation, taxation and subsidies.

You could have a shadow command economy, with its shadow plan voted by parliament which in turn would generate shadow prices that we could then compare to the actual prices. This in turn could be used to push legislation that would push the market towards this more optimal balance, or we might see that some legislation is operating in counter purpose, subsidizing things we would rather not subsidize, restricting other things excessively. Heck we might even find products where both prices match and we could relax in the knowledge that the invisible hand got it right for once.

One great benefit would be that since we would still be in a market economy we wouldn’t need to measure out the millions and millions of products that form our economy. Its one thing to ask what is the socially optimal price of petrol but i don’t think anyone would mind if we don’t know the socially optimal price of back scratchers, and ipods and many many other things. Heck you could even stop midway, find the optimal price of wool and cotton, and not worry about how many winter coats of each size get made. Shadow Canada would be a “country” which produced a limited number of goods, and whose population, mines and fields is only a fraction of actual Canada.

Maybe I am being overly rosy, but I cant help but feel that this would be incredibly useful as a tool for making good policy.


absurdbeats 06.05.12 at 5:48 pm

Both Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics used footnotes, although I have no idea if they were real or made-up notes. I didn’t bother to check because I hated both books—although that had less to do with the footnotes themselves than, perhaps, to the attitude which led them to the inclusion of said notes.


Philip 06.05.12 at 6:10 pm

Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels have dramatis personae at the beginning that explicitly distinguish the entirely fictional characters from the people who factually existed.


carl caldwell 06.05.12 at 7:08 pm

I completely agree with Rich Yeselson’s point that Red Plenty does not, in fact, challenge existing genres. It is a work of historical fiction, and as such it does a good job insofar as it conveys a historical moment and does so with close attention to the historical record. The notes, I think, by abandoning the playfulness of notes in e.g. Pale Fire or The Third Policeman, reduce the playfulness and openness of the text itself, however. Despite the comments by others in this general discussion about the contingency of the moment, in my estimation both Red Plenty and the historical work on the moment of “red plenty” itself indicate a less than contingent social system, where the political system of control via the plan creates unintended consequences that render unrealistic the plan itself. In other words, this novel has an argument, a historical argument, which it supports through historical sources in the notes.


Clay Shirky 06.05.12 at 10:37 pm

“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.”

This reminds me of the Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote*” in which the (fictional) author named in the title is trying to “re-create” Don Quixote by understanding it so well he can write it himself. He ends up with some fragments (which are, of course, word for word copies of Cervantes’ original) but is praised for having been able to write those lines while taking into account the intervening history between the early 1600s and the present.



Nabakov 06.06.12 at 2:40 am

Also Flashman’s capers were presented in a well annoted historical context to the point where some American reviewers apparently believed the first packet of papers was actually found in a Leicestershire saleroom.


Maynard Handley 06.06.12 at 3:03 am

“That is why state and corporate crimes are revealed by those who risk harsh punishment. Nothing can fully extinguish the human desire to do right.”

You say this as though it is a human universal. I’d like to see evidence for that.

As counter-evidence I’d offer up Ian Buruma’s book on Chinese dissidents where one of the dissidents said that China’s biggest problem was that it did not have a legacy of Christianity, and thus did not have a legacy of this tradition of people willing to make an effort to help strangers.


sam b 06.06.12 at 4:51 am

I’m trying to get this book. The commentary it’s generated here at CT has been spectacular. It’s made this site my favourite place on the Internet for the past few weeks.

If we’re talking fiction that gets inside Soviet Russia, imho Victor Serge remains underrated (unless lots of people are reading him and not saying anything about it). The Case of Comrade Tulayev gave insights into a particular political moment that astonished me. Despite the awful human destruction that takes place, the willingness (the doubting, articulate willingness) of the characters to sacrifice themselves to a revolution even as it betrays them was like a religious illumination. There was this generation, says Serge, who set a system in motion and who acted in service of that system even as it ate them up; people so committed that they were willing to be the collateral damage, themselves, of creating a new order. It’s hardly a book that celebrates the Soviet state, but turning away from it and back to contemporary politics shows us as feeble and insincere by comparison.

I think it deserves a place in the canon of historical fiction that illuminates present possibilities, both as a tragic study of utopian ideals collapsing and as an incitement to courage.


ajay 06.06.12 at 8:47 am

Jennifer Egan’s recent, deservedly acclaimed, A Visit from the Good Squad
“A Visit from the Good Squid”, surely?

No, you’re thinking of China Mieville’s satire of the British Ministry of Defence, “A Visit From The Hoon Squid”.


ajay 06.06.12 at 8:54 am

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 this reminds me of, very strongly, is the development of Islamic finance. Islamic bankers are caught in a dilemma: first, Islamic law (or at least Islamic law as interpreted by the hardest-line Hanbali-school ulema) forbids gambling, lending for interest and sale of non-existent commodities. And there are a large number of rich Muslims who would happily shift their money into something acceptable to said ulema. But modern finance pretty much depends on gambling (insurance and pension schemes), lending for interest (bank savings and loans, and bond issues) and the sale of non-existent commodities (futures and options).

So colossal amounts of Muslim brainpower has been devoted to inventing structures that behave exactly like an interest-bearing loan (or whatever) but are just different enough not to make the ulema unhappy.


Agog 06.06.12 at 9:13 pm

Straightwood asserts that nothing can fully extinguish the human desire to do right.

Maynard Handley would like to see some evidence. Would it be overly snarky to suggest more interaction with human beings?

Also, remind me, when were the Analects compiled?


gordon 06.07.12 at 12:47 am

“…I started thinking of novelists at least some of whose work could be categorized as historical”.
What happened to Sir Walter Scott, who started the whole historical novel ball rolling?

I love Pascal Leduc’ s (at 5) shadow command economy. Why do so many people, including commenters on the Red Plenty posts, think that market prices are real? We have had all sorts of bubbles, the evidence of historical speculative booms and busts, even Enron deliberately manipulating California energy prices, and yet still people can apparently believe that market prices are really set by some kind of market. Astonishing!


Yeselson 06.07.12 at 2:20 am

I mentioned the names of the novelists who popped into my head when I thought of the historical novel. Yes Scott was Lukacs’s template, but if I had written that Scott had popped into my head, I would have been lying.

And, yes, “Good” Squad was a typo!


Maynard Handley 06.07.12 at 4:26 am


“Maynard Handley would like to see some evidence. Would it be overly snarky to suggest more interaction with human beings?”
The people I associate with presumably have been pretty much all raised in the Western tradition, so that hardly proves anything.

Look, I am not trying to be snarky, I am trying to prevent bad logic. We’re all happy to mock when America invades Iraq and assumes it’s populated by Americans, but suddenly I am being unreasonable in pointing out that claiming that “most humans behave a certain way” is a big claim? We already have too many economists and political scientists claiming (with zero evidence) that humans at all times and in all places have behaved in certain ways — I feel a duty to make anyone presenting such a claim at least think a little before mindlessly insisting on it.

OK, you believe this claim is true. So, go outside the Christian ethic and tell me how many examples you can provide; examples that aren’t clearly inspired by Christianity. And how common are they?
Look, I’m not here to praise Christianity — I’m an atheist. However the man making this claim in Buruma’s book has studied the matter in great detail, and superficially at least, the claim seems plausible. Of course there are organizations like Tzu Chi that do good work; but let’s not forget that Tzu Chi was founded in 1966, not in 1066, not in 366 BCE. And even Tzu Chi represents a lesser ethic than what we are discussing — “help others” rather than “be willing to accept great punishment to help strangers”.

I have already given you one example. For another — the various trust games that the behavioral economists have tried around the world give widely divergent results. For another — the salient ethic in Homer is “honor” not “mercy”. For another — the Hebrew Bible contains example after example of horrific behavior that exists within an ethic of “behave this way within your tribe, but anyone outside the tribe is fair game”.


Martin Bento 06.08.12 at 7:38 pm

On the calculation argument itself, I think it important to ask whether this problem corresponds to something fundamental in Marxist theory or is just a problem of implementation or of specific conditions.

Marx separates use value from exchange value, and then holds that exchange value is determined by the human labor embodied in an object, including the entire chain of production. Well, not the precise human labor, as Marx recognizes differences in productivity, but the average human labor that would be socially necessary. What if the labor is deployed foolishly, towards creating something of no use? That doesn’t count, Marx says. Human labor only counts as labor power if it creates something useful. As I have argued previously in this venue, this is a huge fudge.

It is a fudge in that: 1) exchange value still depends crucially on use value, as it is the latter that determines whether something is useful. It is just that the relationship is being trivialized. 2) it treats the question of usefulness, for the purpose of establishing whether labor counts as labor power, as binary. It is not a question of how useful something is, but simply of whether it is or not.

Marx then sets aside as trivial for this purpose the problem of determining whether the ends to which labor is put are useful. The underlying problem for economic calculation is determining which the most (as this is clearly not a binary situation) useful allocation of resources. For Marx, labor is the uber resource; the others serve to enhance the productivity of labor. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that. The economic calculation problem, then, is the apparently intractable one of determining which sorts of labor in which quantities are useful. This matter that Marx brushed aside turns out to be the fatal flaw in his theory, at least one of them.


Peter T 06.09.12 at 4:15 am


I have only a passing acquaintance with Chinese history, but as I recall there are many, many instances of poets, mandarins and courtiers being executed or exiled for remonstrating against what they saw as unjust imperial policies. And they are remembered as heroes and exemplars. Together, of course, with quite a few bandit “Robin Hood” figures.


PJW 06.09.12 at 10:41 pm

Cormac McCarthy and his genre- and myth-challenging novel Blood Meridian would make a nice addition to the aforementioned litany of historical novels/novelists.


ajay 06.11.12 at 9:48 am

as I recall there are many, many instances of poets, mandarins and courtiers being executed or exiled for remonstrating against what they saw as unjust imperial policies.

Unjust; not unmerciful. A love of proper social order isn’t quite the same thing.

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