The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin

The QueueEveryone is in line. What are they waiting for? We don’t really know, but they love talking about it. Sally Laird, the translator of The Queue, tells us to look for the melody amid the conversations. You see, the whole book is a conversation, one as long and winding as the queue itself. There is no narrator, no description, no indication of who is talking; there is only talking. And it’s accomplished perfectly.

There is a plot of sorts, the main melody. A man is in line, meets a woman in line, they hit it off, go out to eat, she leaves him for someone in the restaurant who doesn’t have to wait in line. The first man, in turn, meets another woman later, a rather interesting one really, who also doesn’t have to wait in line.

The queue leans heavily absurd. Thousands of people are waiting in it, and when it gets so late they must wait overnight they are all given a number. Then there is roll call, once in the middle of the night, once in the morning. Then they queue up again. The people at the front begin to sell their places to the people at the back. And the whole time the queuers are coming and going, asking the people in front and behind to save their place while they go find breakfast, lunch, ice cream—while they go queue somewhere else for some other item.

Here, though, the absurd is not exactly alien. I can’t say how much this novel resembles reality, but my bet would be on “pretty well.” My favorite parts came when the conversation turned to the States.

—He’s just got back from America.
—And how was it?
—Depends… There’s an awful lot of crime. You can’t really go out after eight in the evening… There’s loads of stuff around to buy, but you have to work like a horse.
—Of course. Can’t get anything for nothing.
—Here at least you can walk round the streets at night.
—I wouldn’t speak too soon. Just in the last two years we’ve had two murders round our house. And robbery.
—Just coincidence.
—Oh yeah, you reckon!
—The point is Americans are always scared about something—frightened they’ll be kicked out of their job or their wife’s going to get raped or their car stolen…they’re scared stiff the whole time…
—Still, they don’t have these queues.
—No, they don’t have the queues, that’s true.

Sorokin wrote an incredibly smart afterword post-USSR, noting that after the fall of Communism,

people standing in lines discovered three terrible truths:
1. Money is real.
2. The people standing in line next to you have different abilities.
3. There are not 3 kinds of sausage but 33. Or even 333.

I haven’t read much Soviet literature at all, though I’d like to. Trying to think of any now I can only recall The Master and Margarita. I think what makes The Queue so interesting to me is that rather than focusing on your typical oppression, it’s the mundane, everyday oppression of the queue. Not to minimize the more clear and violent things that went on, but this queue is soul-destroying. And yet, in the end, as Sorokin tragically notes, it creates a dependency, where “the ordeal of the free market turned out to be more frightening than the Gulag, and more burdensome than the bloody war years, because it forced people to part with the oneiric space of collective slumber.”

Oh, this was a good one.

5 comments to The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin

  • It sounds rather like something Kafka would write. Interesting quote you shared, regarding their opinion of Americans!

  • I’ve been eyeing this book for sometime now, thanks for a clearer insight into it.

  • If everything is only in quotes, isn’t it really difficult to keep track of the who’s speaking? Not that that’s making me less intrigued by the book… This sounds really fascinating and like a pretty good read.

  • nicole

    Jeane, Kafkaesque would probably be a good descriptor–for the situation, not just the novel.

    Biblibio, well, take as an example the passage I quoted, I think it is fairly representative as far as keeping track of who’s speaking. We don’t know who’s speaking here, but it’s quite understandable. Moreover, we can’t even tell for sure how many people are speaking in the excerpt. It can be interpreted as a conversation between two people, but it’s also possible that some third person, overhearing, piped up with “I wouldn’t speak too soon.” Or, you could think of several people sort of milling around, with the parts (from the beginning) going something like ABACDE…many possible permutations.

    In some areas you can tell, and a couple people are named so you can tell when someone is speaking to or referencing them. But I think the up-in-the-air effect of much of the text is a “feature, not a bug”–threads of melody winding through the collective, perhaps?

  • Between the anxiety of the free market and the dictatorship of the queue, I’d choose the latter any day. The former is just as soul-destroying. But don’t mind my opinion… This is one book I’d like to get my hands on some day. Thanks for blogging about it. :)