Maddening Queues of Soviet Russia

Imagine you’ve been waiting in line to buy a pair of shoes. Imagine you’ve waited all day and all night with hundreds of people. Can you imagine how dull that is?

This is the subject of the book I’m reading, The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin. If you went to school in the U.S., you probably came across the book 1984 by George Orwell. Well, I’m halfway through a Russian novel written in 1983 the follows much the same line of poking fun at the communist system. The Queue was the debut of this popular contemporary Russian author, and in it he tackles form with an absolute appropriateness to the subject that exploits every angle, or rather the straightness, of the line.

How does the subject of waiting in line influence the structure? Brilliantly, that’s how. The narrative is actually nameless dialogue of innumerable people in line, making conversations and noises as they stand there. One comes to recognize certain voices, like a little boy and his mother and a young man hitting on a girl named Lena. Even so, it feels like overhearing the hum of the crowd, as people complain about the sun or their feet in short, colloquial snippets. The chain of dialogue moves as the line moves. For example, a segment of the line twists itself to a courtyard with benches where they nap. After settling in, the reader finds page after blank page while they sleep. The text on the pages even looks like a line.

Yet as the reader finds, this farcical line in the Soviet Union is anything but straight. The humor of the book comes from the deadpan depiction of people moving backwards instead of forwards in the queue. Humor, immediately recognizable as it is, is difficult to pin down. The Queue rests on a recognition that waiting in line in a perhaps futile attempt to purchase anything, of the difficulties of merely waiting to do so, such as the Georgians cutting in front and pushing the whole crowd back, is not reasonable, and is incongruous with the society that Communism purported to establish. The absence of the author’s voice keeps the novel from taking on a didactic or even very dark aspect. The Queue is a comedy, but a rather dull one, as waiting in line has little to recommend itself.

Despite the cleverness of the structure, it’s also difficult to become involved in fiction without engaging characters. The struggle of the line seems the struggle of faceless individuals, but not of people despite hearing their voices speak throughout. It’s also because the characters do not act–they wait and wait in line. Following orders is not the inspiring stuff of novels, though it is perhaps truer to life. Only halfway through, and here I am critiquing the novel. This is less unfair that you might think. A disappointment of the novel is the extended stasis of the plot, and leaves me thinking the line will continue forever, without them ever buying the shoes of rumored American-make and brown leather.

Ah, Russians on the joys of communism..The novel really is interesting in itself, but believe me when I say it fully explores its chosen topic. No one, no where need ever write about queue in Soviet Russia ever again. Sorokin has filled that niche.

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