Sunday, June 24, 2012

Remarks on Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Everything was as before, except for... the wild and senseless footprints on the ceiling.

-- Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Begins on Saturday
"nearly used" as an epigraph to Francis Spufford, Red Plenty
I recently read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, and wanted to make a few notes on it -- not quite a review, perhaps, more a series of reactions. But I can sum up my brief review of the book into one short phrase: it's fabulous.

The rest of this note will be devoted to spelling out some of the ambiguities in that phrase: what is it, that it is fabulous, and in what way(s) is it fabulous.

First, on the question of what it is, I think that most of the hard work has already been done by the (fabulous) novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote a review as part of Crooked Timber's Red Plenty seminar, through which I first heard of this astonishing book (and which I mentioned before in this post). Robinson essentially devoted his review to defending the idea that the book is a novel -- the title of his piece is "Red Plenty is a novel" -- and the core of his argument on this point is as follows:
There seems to be some unnecessary confusion as to [Red Plenty's] form or genre. You can see that in the front matter of the American edition, in which it is described as “like no other history book,” “a collection of stories,” “’faction’,” “part detective story,” “a set of artfully interwoven genres,” “the least promising fictional material of all time,” “reverse magical realism,” and “half novel/half history”. Of course it does not help that the first words of the novel are “This is not a novel. There is too much to explain…”

All wrong. There is always too much to explain, and yet novels are still novels. They have an immense capacity to include and shape all aspects of the real. Red Plenty is not even a particularly unusual novel, in terms of length, complexity, self-awareness, historical inclusions, bricolage technique, or any other matters of style or content. Shall we say Moby Dick is not a novel, or War and Peace? No we shall not. Red Plenty is a novel like they are, and should be discussed as one.
Precisely so. I admit that I thought Red Plenty was a novel when I picked it up, and that this preconception doubtless influenced my perception of it; nevertheless I have an extremely hard time imagining how anyone could have believed otherwise. It is a series of fictive passages, written in series of changing, third-person viewpoint characters. Each of the six parts begins with an italicized section with direct history -- essentially, necessary background for the fiction that follows. (This technique Spufford borrowed (on his own testimony) from Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.) But again, the notion that these brief sections make the entirety anything other than a novel ridiculous.

Why is there this confusion about the work's genre, if the answer is, in fact, so straightforward? I think the answer here is that it's largely due to the claims of Spufford himself -- not in the text of his book (although yes, it does deny its novelistic status*), but rather in various extra-textual remarks he made about the book, which presumably shaped the book's promotion, which itself focused on (and highlighted) the supposed confusion of the book's mode.

Why did he do this? Well, those of us picking up the book after its completion have (or should have) little difficulty in seeing it as a novel. But Spufford, as the author, lived the process of its creation -- and while the book ended up as a novel, it didn't start out that way. Spufford is a non-fiction writer, by all accounts not simply in the opinion of the publishers and booksellers who categorize his work, but by self-conception; and he began to research and write his book as a history. In his search for ways to accurately convey the history of a particular idea, he found himself drawn into the process of fiction: but it seems that, in his own mind, the books origins as an attempted history blinded him, somewhat,** to the fact that what he ended up writing was, simply, a novel.*** A novel that tells a true story, sure -- but many novels do that (using, as Spufford does, ficitonalizing techniques, which makes them novels).

But what about the notes? Red Plenty has a copious number of notes, patiently explaining what in the work is true, what is based in truth but distorted, what might be true but we don't have enough documentation to know, what is sheer fiction, and so forth. These notes -- as, again, was noted in the Crooked Timber seminar -- are very different than the in-fiction, ironic sort of notes that one gets in other novels.

But not exclusively, and Spufford's footnotes are by no means without precedent. Many historical novels have brief afterwards or author's notes doing essentially the same thing that Spufford does, albeit more briefly. And other works have provided closer precedent for Spufford's book. The notes that comes to my mind most readily are Alan Moore's extensive notes to his historical fiction, the graphic novel From Hell, which provides a (self-consciously) far-fetched presentation of the truth of the Jack the Ripper murders, and in the process writes a book that presents late-19th century London with as much richness and diversity of class as The Wire does early-21st century Baltimore.**** Moore's footnotes -- in a very different way than Spufford's, naturally, since Spufford is making up fairly free fiction about a lengthy era, while Moore is speculating in the unknown crevices of tightly-matched historical events -- document his sources, where he is making things up, and so forth, just as Spufford does.

Some reviewers have seemed to think that Spufford's notes are a mistake, or diminish the fiction in some way, but this strikes me as utterly wrong. The fictional reality Spufford creates is in no way lessened by our knowing what in it is true and what is not: the brilliance of fiction is precisely that a made-up story can be as affecting as a real one. One can, of course, simply skip Spufford's notes -- but I recommend against it: you learn a lot of interesting things in many of them, for while some of them are simple references, others are richer, little essayettes in their own right. And some even contain particularly fine examples of Spufford's wit or masterly writing that would otherwise be missed, such as this note to the phrase (from part 2, chapter 1, "Shadow Prices"), "Granite giants holding up the Academy's facade":
[S]o far as I know, there are no muscle-bound stone Atlantids straining to support the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Those are all in Leningrad/St Petersburg. But the symbolism is too good to miss; and if a fairytale would be improved by giants, it gets giants.
So my advice is to not skip the notes. Every once in a while, though, Spufford throws a spoiler for later in the chapter into an earlier note, and constant reference to them is distracting; my advice (which I myself only imperfectly followed) is to read each chapters' notes after finishing the chapter, although in my case this did mean that once or twice I went on a tiresome googlesearch for some transliterated term of Sovietology, only to find it clearly explained in a footnote.

Ok, it's a novel. What sort of a novel is it? Here Robinson, so useful in clearing up the major confusion about Red Plenty's mode, actually contributes to the somewhat more minor confusion about its genre. Which is to say that (again referring to the Crooked Timber seminar) some people claim it's science fiction, only about the past, and real science, while others claim that it's a historical novel. Which is it?

Well, Spufford himself notes the following:
But – historical novel, as Rich Yeselson and Carl Caldwell urge, or SF, where Gilman and Robinson are beckoning? I think the two genres are basically isomorphic, as Ken Macleod’s point about history being SF’s secret weapon suggests. They share the increase in the story’s explanatory load, and in the need to create familiarity from a standing start for the reader, and in the increased prominence of world-as-character. In terms of characteristic difficulties, they share the problem of how to make characters something other than just an expression of researched or invented perspectives. They both aim to transport. Where they differ is in whether they transport us to a combination of human possibilities which has already existed, or to one that only might exist, elsewhere or -when. Since the Soviet Union in 1960 existed all too solidly, it looks like an open and shut case for the historical.
Spufford follows this paragraph with the words "and yet...", but his point here is correct: that a history points to alternatives, hints at counterfactual possibilities, and so forth, don't make it any less a history, and the same point holds, mutatis mutandis, for a historical novel.*****

Now, historical novels differ in how closely they adhere to real history: some use real-world people as characters, some do not; some dramatize real events, some are simply set in a real (more or less accurately rendered) era. And on the spectrum of things, Red Plenty is a very historical historical novel. It's purpose is to capture the history of an idea, and the feel of the society in which the idea rose and fell. It stars many real people, and features many real events -- even real quotes (usually in their original context, sometimes not). Some historical novels can't teach you any history at all; Red Plenty can, and does, teach you quite a bit. It is a fictional presentation of real history -- a history that, Spufford discovered, he could best genuinely convey using the means of fiction. Sometimes the best way to convey truth is to tell it as a story.

(One parallel that occurs to me -- a work of fiction, that is unquestionably so, but that deals in real history, and teaches you an enormous amount about it (while still being a great work of literature) is Michael Frayn's brilliant play Copenhagen, about the 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the titular city, then under German occupation. Note that Copenhagen is another work of fiction (a play, not a novel) with extensive notes about what is and is not real, about sources, and so forth, much in the matter of Red Plenty. (Actually, it goes further, and in places characters essentially give footnotes on stage, in the dialogue. Like Red Plenty, it only sounds like it shouldn't work.))

Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone. ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says. ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock. But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’

-- Soviet Joke, quoted by Francis Spufford

So, yes. Red Plenty is a historical novel. What's it about?

Well, it's about the idea that briefly took hold in the Soviet Union, largely during the Khrushchev era (1953 - 1964), although the dismantling and wreckage of the idea extended into the Brezhnev era, that communism could (and should, and indeed (in several senses) must) out-perform capitalism, and that the Soviet Union, as a planned, communist economy, could become the richest society on Earth. The idea, that is, of red plenty.

In other words, it's about the intellectual history of Soviet economics, largely ideas that have been discredited (plus some that were never quite tried, although they're probably impossible too), and the social history it interacted with.

If my Noble Readers reaction to this is that this is about as dull a topic as could be imagined, then I should note that, before beginning the book, I would have mostly agreed with you -- I'm interested in ideas and their history, so I wouldn't have put it that strongly, but I will admit it sounded a bit dull. In fact, after browsing the Crooked Timber seminar on the topic, I more or less decided to buy the book, but thought that (in all honesty) I'd put it on the stack of books-to-read that I metaphorically have (its actually bookcases, and intermixed with books I've already read, books I never really want to read, and many other categories of books), and get to it,,,, sometime. Maybe.

In fact, if my Noble Readers think that the topic sounds boring, then it is not only I that (formerly) agreed with you; Spufford himself thought so too. As he writes:
Red Plenty is wilfully devoted to the deadest of dead issues: the planning problems of a no-longer existent system which has no prospect of ever becoming existent again. Unicorn husbandry, biplane manufacture, sermon publishing – take your pick of impractical comparisons. This seems like a good place to start. Because though the imp of the perverse played a major part in my decision to write the book; and I was positively attracted to the whole business of being the first person in thirteen years to consult Cambridge University Library’s volumes of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press; and in general to the challenge of taking on the most outrageously boring subject-matter I could find, and wrestling it to the floor, and forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel of interestingness...
So even the book's author agreed that the subject matter was, inherently, not that interesting.

But I downloaded the Kindle sample, and found myself, on a Saturday night, reading the opening. And by the time I got to the end, I went and bought (on iBooks -- I think it's a better program, at least for the iPad) the electronic book, because I couldn't wait to keep going.


Well, first of all, it's really well written. And I mean that on every level. It's nonfiction introductory sections are incredibly engrossing, well-written as non-fiction. And the fiction that make up, well, the bulk of the novel are quite well crafted. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of the first chapter proper (i.e. excluding the (marvelous!) initial italicized section), "The Prodigy, 1938", which I chose largely because it's part of the excerpt on Spufford's site and therefore I could lazily cut & paste rather than retyping anything:
A tram was coming, squealing metal against metal, throwing blue-white sparks into the winter dark. Without thinking about it, Leonid Vitalievich lent his increment of shove to the jostling crowd, and was lifted with the rest of the collectivity over the rear step and into the cram of human flesh behind the concertina door. “C’mon citizens, push up!” said a short woman next to him, as if they had a choice about it, as if they could decide to move or not, when everyone inside a Leningrad tram was locked in the struggle to get from the entry door at the back to the exit at the front by the time their stop came around. Yet the social miracle took place: somewhere at the far end a small mob of passengers burped out onto the roadway, and a squeezing ripple travelled down the car, a tram-peristalsis propelled by shoulders and elbows, creating just enough space to press into before the door closed. The yellow bulbs overhead flickered, and the tram rocked away with a rising hum.
It's not that this is just a very well written paragraph, filled with fine prose. It's that it also neatly threads into its metaphors the actual topic of the book: phrases like "Without thinking about it, Leonid Vitalievich lent his increment..." can be read as actually about the way economics and economies work -- but, of course, it works well for boarding a crowded train, too. (But it is, I claim, not heavy-handed: in any other book you would pass the phrase by without thought, and even in this one it is very easy to do so.) Spufford is not a flashy writer, and his prose doesn't dazzle like, say, Nabokov or Updike. But he is a very fine craftsmen, and his prose is filled with quite triumphs of the scrivener's art.

("Leonid Vitalievich", by the way, is Leonid Vitalievich Kantorovich, the only Soviet economist to win the Nobel Prize in economics (in 1975), one of the (many) central characters in the novel.)

Red Plenty is also a fine book on other counts, well written at higher levels than the sentence, filled with compelling characters and well-observed scenes, like the scene where a Soviet propagandist, faced with the unexpected reality that the American guide at an exchange show is an African American, nevertheless presses on with her attack on the U.S. as unjust system due to racial segregation, or the extraordinary description of how cancer starts in a smoker, or the hillarious scene with Kruschev's chauffer confronting his own new reality after Kruschev's ouster. And on and on. Spufford makes you sympathize and care about people he frankly calls (and shows to be) gangsters and monsters, as well as (in much larger number) their victims and (especially) their mid-level flunkies. It's a social portrait, done through a series of compelling narratives and character sketches.

(To be sure, it's episodic, and characters weave in and out -- which is why some misguided reviewers call it a short story collection. But nearly all come back, and they all centrally revolve around a well-developed theme, and incidents in one narrative reflect and illustrate those in another -- all, of course, standard parts of the novelists' bag of tricks.)

Secondly, Red Plenty provides an interesting narrative of a part of history that I (for one) know too little about: the Post-Stalin, pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union. As Spufford puts it, it is a part of history which
has effectively been crushed flat by hindsight. It’s part of a story we think we know already, about how twentieth-century communism moved from utopian hope, through totalitarian menace, to senile decay and collapse. What’s more, it’s a part that doesn’t matter very much in the story as we now tell it. It’s an interlude, a brief period of delusory Soviet confidence and reformist false dawn, in between the much more important dramas of Act Two (Stalin) and Act Three (Collapse)
Spufford -- as both great historians and historical novelists do -- brings us out of our present mental world, and puts us in that one: makes us forget, almost, how the story ends, makes us forget what economics seems to say, that the dream of red plenty was always impossible. And while he focuses on this one aspect of the period, he ends up telling a lot about Soviet history that I, for one, found fascinating.

Actually, even as an American historian I found the book useful as a reminder of why, and in what way, Americans found the Soviet Union threatening: not just as a military competitor, not just as a monstrous tyranny, but as a system which they (we) feared might be more attractive than ours. It's easy to forget that that seemed genuinely possible, but it did, and it throws a useful light even on the history of this country.

And then there's the core story that Spufford tells, a fascinating one in its own right, filled with interesting ideas about computers and math and how society works and politics and all sorts of things. It turns out that this particular idea is filled with fascination -- at least in Spufford's hands.

I won't go so far as to say that everyone should read this book: it is a bit of a specialized taste. What I will say is that if the prospect of a good historical novel about an idea (in the abstract) sounds interesting to you, don't let the fact that this particular idea doesn't sound interesting as a topic for such put you off. Anyone who likes a good novel ideas will like this book.

Highly recommended.

Coda: In the midst of one chapter -- the first chapter of part four, "The Method of Balances, 1963", there are the following sentences about a mysterious industrial accident that one of the beurocrats is trying to deal with:
In the old days, heads would have rolled over this on principle. It would have been labelled as sabotage just to close the books on it. The organs of security would swiftly have uncovered a conspiracy of wreckers, vilely determined to cheat the people of their rightful viscose. But the policy now was not to compound the effects of an accident by losing, in addition, the expertise of skilled workers over it. After all, accidents did happen.
I must admit that I found one of those phrases incredibly funny -- so funny that I have (as you may have noticed) adopted it, at least temporarily, as a self-description.

* In favor, however, not of being a history, which the work also denies, but of being a fairy tale: and how many modern, book-length fairy tales are not also novels?

** But only somewhat, yet (it seems to me) still somewhat, even after everything. Spufford, following the folkway of the Crooked Timber seminar, wrote a (multi-part) response to the various reviewer's posts, and here is what he says about Robinson's assertion:
Here was a large reason for the first sentence of the book. When I wrote, ‘This is not a novel. It has too much to explain to be one of those’, I was partly teasing. And partly I was negotiating a particular difficulty that had arisen during the original publication, which made it important to assert that whatever it was, it wasn’t a failed novel. But I meant it, too. I was – am – genuinely uncertain over whether, as a piece of writing in which individual experience ceaselessly takes second place to idea, and some kind of documentary purchase on the world is being asserted, it should really qualify. Heaven knows, I’m glad to be contradicted by Kim Stanley Robinson, and if my having done my best to through-imagine it all as a kind of concrete (and viscose) poetry saves it in other people’s eyes from occupying the place I feared it had in the uncanny valley, zombyishly half-alive itself – I’m certainly not going to argue. Alright, it’s a novel.
Spuffords ongoing doubts, it seems me, are simply mistaken: and his final sentence should loose its qualifiers and become boastful. It is not only a novel, full stop -- but a wonderful novel.

*** He's not alone in this: I recall reading that Tolstoy referred to Anna Karenina -- written after War and Peace -- as his first novel. But that is partly because what the novel was when Tolstoy got finished with it was not what it was before he began. His confusion, therefore, is somewhat more reasonable than Spufford's. But they're both wrong.

**** Or is it late twentieth century? Although The Wire was made in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and purports to take place then, much of the reporting its fiction is ultimately based on was from the last two decades of the twentieth century: in some sense is is a fully fictional world, with a mix of late-twentieth and early twenty-first century conditions that never manifested in precisely that way in the real world (but which is no less brilliantly documentary for that).

***** The isomorphism of the SF and historical novel genres is not a point original with Macleod, nor with Spufford -- it was made earlier by (somewhat ironically) none other than Kim Stanley Robinson, in his brilliant essay "Notes for An Essay on Cecelia Holland" -- which, sadly, is not online, although someone put up an excerpt here. In it, Robinson notes that SF works are historical fiction about history that is fundamentally unknowable -- the future, or alternative (unrealized) possibilities. By this standard Spufford, whose work deals with only the familiar unknowability of all history, is quite clearly a historical novel, not an SF one.


Gregory said...

As a Soviet specialist for the CIA in that era post-Stalin, I think the great question is why did a fairly unlikely economic theory have to become a sustained slaughterhouse. Which took so much effort to destroy...

Gregory Benford

Stephen said...

If you haven't read Red Plenty, I recommend it; it has, among other things, a lot to say about the relation between the economic theories and the Soviet state in the post-Stalin era. Utterly fascinating.

Incidentally, I must ask, are you Gregory Benford the author (Timescape, etc)? Because if so, I may have to gush in an embarrassing fashion. At any rate, welcome to my blog.