In general, in the novel, youth is riding for a fall; something in the very form of the novel itself warns us obscurely that things will not turn out—indeed, it is in the very nature of things that they can never turn out. So it is refreshing to come upon Red Plenty, in which youth and its hopes and excitements—forever enthusiastic even in its minor disappointments—are preserved as in a time capsule; as if under a spell, or enclosed within a fairy-tale, as the author, Francis Spufford, tells us. And this, in a historical novel—one of those new so-called postmodern historical novels that are springing up all around us—in which we all know very pertinently that it never did turn out in the first place. This youth, in which the world was new, and very bliss it was, is the youth of the Soviet Union; but not the 1920s, the world of revolutionary hopes, but rather the youth of Khrushchev’s 60s, a whole new generation of Soviets who have put Stalin and the War, deprivation and the secret police, behind them. A generation, indeed, who have never known any of those things, whose emblem is Sputnik and education, and whose hope is ‘red plenty’, in a distinctly different sense from the consumerism of the American post-war. Spufford has done well, first to stock and bury his time capsule, and then to dig it up and open it for us. He has his own lessons to draw from its contents, but there may also be others he has not thought of.
But what a wonderfully and formally unusual novel: the docu-dramas on tv to which it presumably corresponds generically are really nothing like this, and not only because they keep encouraging us to compare the actors with the originals. Nor is this exactly a historical novel, even though it deals with a specific historical period—the Soviet 1960s—and includes real people as characters, most notably Nikita Khrushchev himself, alongside fictional characters, as well as ‘fictionalized’ characters ‘standing roughly where real people stood’, as Spufford puts it in an explanatory ‘Note on the Characters’ that follows the sixty-strong Cast List. Why this is not, then, simply a historical novel is an important theoretical question, which transcends the merely technical and classificatory one of genre.
It can be sharpened, however, by a few more classificatory questions: why is it not a non-fiction novel, for example (in some more meaningful sense than the fact that this generic category no longer exists or never really caught on in the first place)? And what about what might be called the new ‘narrative journalism’—big books which purport to tell the story of a given crisis? I quote the beginning of one, perhaps the ‘biggest’ and best; certainly the most famous—Andrew Sorkin’s 2009 Too Big to Fail:
The morning air was frigid in Greenwich, Connecticut. At 5:00 am on March 17, 2008, it was still dark, save for the headlights of the black Mercedes idling in the driveway, the beams illuminating patches of slush that were scattered across the lawns of the twelve-acre estate. The driver heard the stones of the walkway crackle as Richard S. Fuld Jr shuffled out the front door and into the backseat of the car.
Now every detail of this paragraph could be true (and probably was) and that would not make it any less fictional. Barthes called this kind of writing ‘novelistic’, I believe, without thereby implying that it had to be part of a novel; only that it gives off the signals a novel is supposed to give in order to instruct its readers to shift into the novel-reading mode.
Red Plenty is not like that either, despite its equally novelistic opening sentence: ‘A tram was coming, squealing metal against metal, throwing blue-white sparks into the winter dark.’ It includes, for example, fifty-four pages of endnotes, many of which are long and readable, in explanatory prose; Sorkin has forty pages of one-line references, plus the ‘five hundred hours of interviews’ he was able to draw on. To be sure, novels have included notes before—as in Finnegans Wake or Infinite Jest—but not for reference purposes; and both Spufford and Sorkin include lengthy bibliographies. Thus, both books are based on research, but what is the (generic) difference between journalism and history? Neither is supposed to include fictional characters, after all.
Spufford tries to clarify all this, and the uniqueness of his own text, by framing it as a fairy-tale. I will say later on what I think this means and why it is not wrong. For the moment, I think we need to return to the uniqueness, not of the form, but of the content, and to the strangeness of the fresh start, the new age, the new beginnings. This is not exactly ‘the Sixties’, which is a periodizing concept rather than a date, and which happens at different times in different countries: Spain’s movida begins after Franco’s death, or better still, after the failed coup; China’s starts in the Deng era, etc. Nor is it exactly the same as ‘the Thaw’ or perestroika, let alone the Cultural Revolution; but it is certainly a generational event and a youth movement, which breaks with the attitudes (both moral and political) and authority of an older generation and a ruling class; ‘anti-bourgeois’ captures something of this revolt, even where we are dealing with non-bourgeois societies.