Red Plenty is the story of an idea, an investigation and reimagination of the USSR and how its best minds—mathematicians, economists, scientists—worked together to make a communist dream come true. As Francis Spufford explains at the opening of the book (just published by Faber & Faber in the UK, it doesn't have a US publisher but the chapter Midsummer Night, 1962 appears in APS 11): "This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story; only the story is the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved."
Too much to explain? We asked him to explain himself.
My friend the California science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has had a go at me over this. He says that sentence makes him laugh because there’s always too much to explain; that it’s the fate of the novel, every time, to digest down a load of heterogeneous stuff until it becomes a story. And of course I’d like it if people thought I was being witty and disingenuous, and slyly disavowing novel-hood as a roundabout way of claiming novel status by the back door. But in fact I meant it. In fact I still really do think that Red Plenty can’t quite be a novel because, though its idea is story-shaped, its story is still idea-shaped. It’s a narrative in which the large-scale structure is determined by the progress of the idea, not the progress of the characters’ lives.Continue reading
We first encountered Julian Gough in an essay for Prospect magazine, as part of his campaign to bring comedy back to fiction: “Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.”
Ever since, we've associated comedy with Julian Gough. One of our editors also enjoyed a reading by Julian—a first-rate performer—at the short story festival Small Wonder in a barn at an East Sussex farm, where he competed with milking machines and cows lowing off stage. Thus, when the notion came to our mind to open APS 11 with a conversation on comedy and laughter, in connection with the fiction in the issue (including his wonderful piece How to Fall in Love Properly), we thought Julian would be a perfect person to start things off.
Comic writers laugh at the folly of humanity ("Poor, sufferin' Hugh Mannity," as Flann O'Brien put it). Many, therefore, claim that comic writers should laugh from a position of non-folly: that comic writers need a solid ethical foundation under their feet as they write, in order to justify their attacks. But this is entirely wrong. In fact it is necessary to have no ideology, no religion, no politics, no opinions, when writing comedy. It must come from a pure moral void. Comedy which comes from a specifically Christian point of view, or socialist, or libertarian, contrarian, feminist, Freudian—from any merely human point of view—will be, to that extent, damaged and limited. Comedy is Dionysian, not Apollonian, and it is free of all ethics, all systems. It is pure. It has the sincerity not of religious leaders preaching, but of animals fucking.
Joy Williams and Paul T. Winner reintroduce Charles Newman; Stephen Burt introduces New American Poets; Martha Tennent translates Mercè Rodoreda; Annie Coggan Redecorates the Grant Home, and Rachel Cohen visits; Francis Spufford tells the Story of an Idea; Frank Hunter photographs Allan Gurganus; plus new fiction from Julian Gough, D. Wystan Owen, and Melissa Pritchard; and in If You See Something, Say Something, a good case of levity with Maud Casey, Tom Pope, Julian Gough, Brian T. Edwards, Aviya Kushner, and Ian Chillag.