With the recent publishing of The Lifespan of a Fact and Mike Daisey fiasco, American is facing the start of a national debate about the value of facts against fiction. What counts as a lie? What is non-fiction? How creative can an essayist be? Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that will be quickly forgotten. Whatever. I’m not psychic. Stop bugging me. Anyway, a less scandalous entry into this debate is Red Plenty by Francis Spufford which tells the story Soviet central planning in the Khurschev era through a series of short stories. It’s fiction with endnotes, fairytales with analysis, and if it was published a while back Daisey and D’Agata might have been able to save themselves the embarrassment of looking like semantic liars.
The stories themselves are satisfying but would not work without the historical context that Spufford’s research brings. You would not publish any of them alone in a magazine. They’re sharp reflections of the humanity that the technocrats could not measure and rarely in historical fiction do characters less argue ideas as much as live them. Characters are either historical figures, fictional creations, or a hybrid where a fictional character takes the place of real person where they follow the career trajectory but with their own personality, foibles, etc.
Besides Khrushchev’s perspective at the beginning and end of the book, the point of view of these stories are from the low-level technocrats, party flunkies, and economists who must actualize the dreams of their leader of a perfect rational economy that could produce at levels unimaginable in capitalist societies. The adventures of a tolach, a sort of salesperson in a society where the difficulty is to attract suppliers not consumers are fascinating. What better way to explain to explain the negative incentives created by a planned economy than a story about factory management who sabotage their own machines? The regular Soviet citizen appears rarely though they seem to understand the mechanism of the state as well as the professionals. When one woman wants drugs while giving birth, she claims to be the wife of a high party official. Incentives in Communism twist and turn a person even more so than anything Marx imagined in Capitalism.
The limitations to Spufford’s approach are rather obvious. The actual shape of the planned economy, its ideological origins, and the day-to-day workings of the system can only appear as flashes; if you want to understand how the Soviet economy produced or how the theoreticians planned a new economy you’ll have to read another book (works Spufford’s commonly references in bibliography would seem to be a reasonable point to start). He readily admits that his stories to tend to be pat and self-contain in ways life never is and thus never reflected in real history. To get a message across, fiction is allowed to do things history could do with the same message which is not an insult to either field. Strong messages are maybe more persuasive but they lack the trustworthiness of the weak message of history. It shouldn’t be surprising ever so often writers trying to marry the two though it could lead to all sorts of trouble.
The non-fiction writer must find both the facts and the poetry in those facts. She cannot create a fact just to make their argument easier or more aesthetically pleasing. There’s obvious value when someone says what they’re writing are about true events (otherwise they wouldn’t bother to claim so). Fiction naturally borrows from history and the news. There is no shame to use real life events as the basis of a novel or short story. Because it turns out that when the marriage fails, people get real angry and the second causality after your integrity is your message.