Booker kerfuffles come in two sizes: a given book or genre has been excluded and should not be (we’ll call this strain the Kim Stanley Robinson); or a shortlisted book is a bit edgy, a bit weird, for some (we’ll call this strain the Tom McCarthy). In reading Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s fabulist account of the Soviet planned economy in the 1960s, I foresaw a perfect storm of kerfuffle: here is a book quite clearly of the sort that does not get shortlisted, but which in this case absolutely should be; and, at one and the same time, here is a book so eccentric and idiosyncratic that all of McCarthy’s self-publicising hype begins to seem not a little hollow.
This is not to say that I don’t like C – or that Yellow Blue Tibia, which KSR thought should have made the shortlist in 2009 (and which is also coincidentally set in Soviet Russia), is left in Red Plenty‘s brutalist shade. But it is to say that the book is, in the words of the author of Yellow Blue Tibia no less, “a masterclass”. It’s a remarkably supple, forensic, inventive, readable book – not novel, not (silly James Meek aside) short story collection, certainly, in spite of its copious and rather entertaining footnotes, not history. It is tonally diverse, intellectually stimulating, and finely balanced: though some of its characters appear in more than one of its chapters, many appear for one night only, and yet each are of themselves and none fail to engage, even whilst Spufford inserts between their appearances contextual introductions which are the very definition of infodumping – and are some of the best, most lyrical, pieces of writing in the whole book.
Indeed, Spufford is at his best when he sets himself the most absurd of challenges. So when he is required to describe the flow of electrons inside a thermionic valve, Spufford turns out crystalline, captivating poetry; when his Deputy Director of the Sector of Chemical and Rubber Goods gives us a tour of the nuts-and-bolts functionality of the planned economy, we read prose witty, wry, and entertaining. Not enough? The tension between a Komsomol agitator and an African-American tour guide at the 1959 US exhibition in Sokolniki Park is expertly turned; the balance between unspoken fears and complex personal relationships in the academic enclave of Akademgorodok in 1963 are deftly, dextrously sketched. There’s nary a page of Red Plenty which fails to achieve an at times quite remarkable alchemy between density and lightness.
An ideal example is Spufford’s chapter set in Sverdlovsk, the central Russian city to the east of the Urals in which the shady charmer Chekuskin operates in the essential greyness of the planned economy. A great deal of Chekuskin’s activities and beliefs must go unspoken, and the assumptions of all those around him remain similarly publicly unquestioned. Yet through this fog we glimpse an episode of clear characterisation, effective comedy and astute economic analysis:
On the far side of a row of fir trees, the lieutenant stopped. He pulled Chekuskin to his feet, then on up, hoisted by the fist under his chin, till his short legs in their nondescript trousers dangled in mid-air and he was looking down into the policeman’s red, bristling face, into bloodshot eyes b linking convulsively as flakes spangled them again and again.
“What do you want?” squeaked Chekuskin.
The lieutentnant hit him; punched him in the gut with his free hand. It hurt amazingly much.
“Piece-of-shit life,” said the lieutenant meditatively, as if taking inventory. “Piece-0f-shit flat. Piece-of-shit job. Piece-of-shit car.”
“Tell me what you want.”
” … piece-of-shit car.”
“I can get you a new car!”
“You can, can you?”
The lieutenant pulled him close, nose to nose. The two bloodshot eyes swam together, and it took Chekuskin a moment to realise that the cyclopean shuttering he was seeing a centimetre away was, in fact, a wink. [pp. 253-254]
Just lovely, lovely stuff – under-stated yet worked-up, and not afraid, of course, to look the brutalising effect of the planned economy in the cyclopean shutter. This is Red Plenty‘s duty, since it is primarily in many ways an heroic tale – even Nikita Khrushchev appears sympathetically – about scientists, economists and visionaries seeking to enact a belief. The belief – that a planned economy is possible, practicable and potentially world-beating – may be wrong, misguided, or ill-applied; but the intellectual energy poured into the project, the at times rather brave and certainly breakthrough leaps of thought which are made in pursuit of that doomed end are the epic stuff of the book’s narrative thrust. Thus Emil Arslanovich Shaidullin, Spufford’s stand-in for Abel Aganbegyan, on our firsting meeting him: “Politics gave the orders, in the economy of the USSR, and economists were allowed to find reasons why the orders already given were admirable. But that was going to change, he suspected. He believed that the Soviet Union was soon going to need more from its economists, because there was more to life – there was more to running an economy – than giving orders.” [pg. 64] Emil is the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, but also to a Pollyanna: he seeks to make the USSR a more sensible, more successful place, but he struggles against harsh reality. Red Plenty is a book about devising better alternatives. In choosing the planned economy, of all things, as its focus, Spufford simply exhibits the daring, brio and humour which make this book such a richly memorable experience.
John F Kennedy, Khrushchev’s great opponent in the Cuban Missile Crisis (which here gets its due), said in his first inaugural address of his grand, still unrealised, ambitions: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” Red Plenty is a book about making the start. That it is in part an historical novel simply emphasises the heroism of keeping on keeping on. The campaign for getting it on the Booker shortlist starts now.