Sunday, 12 June 2011

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

From The Week of April 10, 2011

Though Mr. Spufford has succeeded, here, in shedding light on the causes which lead to the collapse of the Soviet economic system, his decision to tell a true story through fiction's myriad devices has permitted him to have his cake and eat it too, while leaving his readers in literary purgatory.

From the theoretical efficiency of planned economies to the intricacies of setting prices, Mr. Spufford uses a host of characters, some real and some fictional, to put a human face on why the Soviet system failed. To tell this story, he drafts a vast cast of protagonists, scientists, economists, politicians, and regular citizens, each, first, representing an economic theory and, then, demonstrating why the theory failed. It's a structure that enables Mr. Spufford to take us from high-level meetings between American and Soviet officials in Washington to the meagerness of people trying to feed themselves in a country that often times seems cursed. Along the way, he details the inevitable growth of debilitating bureaucracies, necessary for the management of such economies, while pointing out the ways in which top-down economic systems institutionalize corruption. And so, while the lives of his characters fall apart, the reader is left to ponder the truly staggering consequences of operating on inaccurate data which, more than anything else, seems to have been the root cause of the Soviet collapse.

While I give Mr. Spufford credit for venturing into the wilderness of fiction/non-fiction blendings, this unusual alchemy falls well short of its lofty goals. Rather than amalgamating to become more than the sum of its parts, the fiction here cheapens the lessons the non-fiction is attempting to teach, stripping it of the scholarly gravitas of an academic work. Meanwhile, the non-fiction interferes with the reader's need to invest in what are unavoidably two-dimensional characters who are, clearly, only here to humanize the concepts Mr. Spufford wants totransmit. For all that the structure frustrated me, however, the author builds compelling cases for why bureaucracy and corruption played starring roles in the Soviet collapse. These forces provided false information to the planned economy, making its promised efficiency impossible to actualize. But what if we could know every variable, every price point? Every shortfall? Every necessity? What if we could design systems that could generate accurate models predicting human wants and behaviors? Would, with such a computer system, the planned economy reach its fabled efficiency? Mr. Spufford's description of the rudimentary computers that attempted to crunch these numbers in the 1960s and 1970s leave the impression that someday someone will try.

This is a brave experiment. And perhaps the fault is in my stars, for being too inflexible in the face of such an innovative effort. But I needed Mr. Spufford to pick a side, fiction or non-fiction, and stay there. His assimilation of the two took away more from this project than it gave. (2/5 Stars)

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