n 1966, Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, his retelling of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote heralded the book as the first “non-fiction novel,” in which he marshaled the techniques of fictional narrative storytelling to better portray objective reality. In Cold Blood was bound by certain strictures, to be sure. The “I” pronoun and any temptation to editorialize were forbidden. But the non-fiction novelist’s liberties extended to the “selection of what you choose to tell,” as Capote told George Plimpton. “What I think is that reporting can be made as interesting as fiction, and done as artistically.”
Leaving aside the fact that Capote’s medium debut was preempted nine years earlier by Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre, and leaving aside also the revelation that parts of Capote’s objective narrative don’t hold up under scrutiny today, one must admit Capote tackled with characteristic audacity the challenge of getting text to convey fact and arrive at truth. And since Capote, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and David Eggers have also answered the challenge, concocting their own compounds of fact and narrative.
None of these names, or Capote’s concept, get mentioned in Francis Spufford’s first collection of short nonfiction, True Stories and Other Essays. But the concerns of these authors serve as an overriding theme for the assembled essays. Culled from writing as far back as 1993 and as recent as this year, they cover a range of subjects, from Antarctica to the Soviet Union to pop culture’s obsession with the past to Rudyard Kipling to Spufford’s own work. The wide-ranging collection is held together by the meta-topic, an examination of how fact, storytelling, belief, and evidence confront and co-mingle with one another. Or, as Spufford puts it, in each essay is seen “data’s liberated phantom, melting through the walls of genre, turning all paisely at its edges but still firmly possessed of its pocket protector and its scruples.”
Of course, few people are really in danger of nailing Data’s phantom down, of being imprisoned by the walls of objectivity when they marshal “the facts.” And here Spufford is quite safe. His 2012 book Red Plenty, telling of the economic ambitions of the mid-20th century Soviet Union, has been praised for its amalgamation of fiction and history. But to have him tell it, he could effectively use the fictive to enhance the factual only because he was not in full possession of the facts. Had he been qualified to write about Soviet mathematical economics, no such book would have been written. “I don’t speak Russian or read Russian,” he admits in “Unicorn Husbandry,” one of the six essays in the book dealing with his experience writing Red Plenty. “Nor do I have the alternative route of intimacy with the science of the story. My only qualification is a kind of gift for pattern recognition, for seeing where, in the distributed mass of events and ideas and personalities, there is narrative sense to be made.” Making his task more difficult—or, by his logic, easier—very few of the people he tried to interview seemed much interested in recalling their Cold War experience to a total stranger.
But even without the facts, the story he was chasing had a clarion call all its own, one with “irony enough to glut even the greediest palate.” Soviet history was “a tragedy” but also “a comedy of ideas and of things… in which material objects spin out of control, like the production running awry in Chaplin’s Modern Times, and refuse more and more catastrophically to play the roles assigned to them by bossy human intentions.” So Spufford opted to venture on “a perverse project” and “take the voyage to the heart of dullness.” “Basically, I wanted to be awkward”:
Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.… It would not be possible to overstate my incompetence at dealing with any of the science in Red Plenty in a quantitative or even genuinely abstract way. Person after person who was kind enough to talk to me… encountered a mumbling, stumbling individual who, not being able to talk in the language of maths, had no way to convey the scribbled cloud of nouns joined by arrows in his head.
Untangling such historical knots, Spufford reflects that the fictive-factual form “was a move towards honesty of making characters, explicitly, the knowers of my work.” In so doing, he managed to better frame his theme of “ideas in lives, muddy, murky, ambiguous, this worldly anti-abstract.”
This bold advance into the mud and murk is not seen, however, when Spufford is on more intellectually comfortable ground. As a Christian up against evidence-based New Atheists like Richard Dawkins on the one hand and spiritual seekers like Barbara Ehrenreich on the other, Spufford takes a firm position and has more affirmed, if not more definitive, answers for each opponent. “We agree that truth is all-important,” he writes in response to Jerry Coyne’s critique of his book Unapologetic, included in this collection, “that it is the test of all contentions, that it would be shameful intellectual dishonor… to lie knowingly about matters of fact. Where we differ is in the estimate of the obtainability of truth. For me, the things we know… represent only a fraction of the things that are true about the universe.”
As with his work on the Soviet Union, imagination serves as a kind of first principle for a situation where fact is left wanting. Here, however, Spufford contends not with mum keepers of data he requires, or with his own limitations, but with those who would wield data toward mysteries no one can rightly solve. In the essay “Contra Dawkins,” Spufford cites St. Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews of faith being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” “Christians are people who take the risk of declaring that He is there. But we cannot prove it, so imagination must be the way in which we approach Him. Imagination is how we take the printed words of scripture, and discover how to join them to the stories of our own lives.”
When examining what he describes as Barbara Ehrenreich’s morality-stripped “freelance and zoological theism” of Living with a Wild God, he wants to smack her upside the head (rhetorically speaking) with the believer’s truth which she can’t come to acknowledge is there. “A bit of Thomism would help with her firmly post-Protestant sense that a creator would have to be transcendently remote from creation,” he counsels. “A familiarity with the psalms would correlate her startled reflection that ‘I was not afraid of dying, because it was obvious that the Other… would continue just fine without me.’” But he admits at the same time that the frustrations are telling:
If someone as open as this, with such a strong working sense as the tragic possibilities of existence, recognises nothing in the descriptions of the faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the “rage of joy” she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God.
However much Spufford wants to partake in or practice the wilder side of piety or prose, he is, at least in this collection, a loyalist to form. This is disappointing, first, in light of the textual experimentation Spufford is advocating. He admits that what he did in Red Plenty is not exactly new, citing the influence of the “scientist-fictions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson.” (And he does get credit over Capote for at least having scruples.) But his relish in recalling his experimentation doesn’t carry over into further demonstration.
In a literary landscape where nonfiction is more formulaic than ever, with most “take”-based content farming, navel-gazing confessional monologues, and time-abusing “longform,” the essay is among the most elastic of the literary genres. A seasoned practitioner’s embrace of that elasticity would go far in reversing its atrophy. By his own admission, Spufford is a natural apologist with a “pleasure in explaining things.” He is an essayist of stylistic grace, humor, and humanity. He is also subject to longueurs that, for my part, are difficult to quote in miniature and which test everyone else’s pleasure to be explained to. His approach of I discovered this. I think this, this, this, this, and this. And, oh, this vaguely related allusion is kind of cool, right? can charm in a rank landfill of daily journalism but can wear in sequence.
But the limitations do not bear so much on the writer as they do the reader. It’s possible that what I described is precisely what someone wants in an essay, and more specifically in the essay as written by Francis Spufford. I leave it to them if that is the case. The longtime Spufford reader will be as the hog squealing itself senseless in a cool mud. The novice Spufford reader, on the other hand, might be better seen as the sailor, rudderless in the current of a vast, albeit crystal clear, ocean. It is possible, to be sure, that one or several sailors may find conditions optimal and gain some control. But for all of Spufford’s obvious gifts I couldn’t fight the desire to convene below with the drowned, and to see what they are reading.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]