Reading British writer Francis Spufford's 2008 novel Red Plenty, a fictionalized account of life in the Soviet Union during the early Khrushchev years, this essay defends a bare theory of race against what it calls a novelistic theory of race. Whereas the latter—powerfully dramatized in novels like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) and Richard Wright's The Outsider (1953)—stresses the (long-denied) depth and complexity of black subjectivity, the former eschews considerations of black particularity for a punitive, state-sponsored approach to racial injustice.

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