Footnote Fairy Tale

RedAdam Kotsko reviews Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty in The New Inquiry:

Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, like Infinite Jest, is a book you need to read with two bookmarks: one for the main text, one for the endnotes. It is also like Infinite Jest insofar as it shows us an alternative future that seems uncannily like our own. The difference is that while David Foster Wallace constructed a purely fictional near-future, Spufford presents us with an alternative timeline that failed to materialize: the triumph of Soviet central planning over Western capitalism. In this respect, Red Plenty also bears striking similarities with Wallace’s unfinished posthumous novel The Pale King, which featured a great variety of characters but was finally about a system, namely, the IRS. Yet the real topic isn’t so much the actual existing Soviet system, but a reformed system based on advanced theories of cybernetics, which was proposed but, again, failed to materialize.

Thus it’s fitting that Spufford describes his novel as a fairy tale. Much of its material is the stuff of fantasy: a visitor from a far-away land (America) bearing magical talismans (appliances), or a city magically popping up in the wilderness of Siberia so that academics can live in luxury. What differentiates Red Plenty is that the author provides much more documentation of the parallels between the fantasy world and the real one than is typical. In this fairy tale with footnotes, readers can flip back to find out that a relatively frank conversation was of course much more frank than was likely in the Soviet Union—Spufford had to exaggerate it because the real change in the frankness level would have been undetectable by outsiders. Similarly, we regularly learn that the time lag between events has been foreshortened for dramatic effect.

The most surprising endnotes, however, are the ones that verify that something really is true. Moscow really did have fast food before the United States, as we learn in the notes to Khrushchev’s fictional musings on the wonders of the American hemburger. What’s more, in the early 1960s Khrushchev really did believe the USSR would overtake the West by 1980, and a good portion of the Soviet population believed along with him. (The pervasive cynicism one now associates with Actual Existing Socialism didn’t really take hold until the Brezhnev years.) And perhaps most importantly, individual apparatchiks really did sit down and write a comprehensive economic plan for the entire Soviet Union—and then laboriously edit it by hand when something inevitably went wrong.