Patience is a virtue?

Early on in The Queue, while Vadim (our focal character) and Lena (his first girlfriend) wait, buses arrive and unload a stream of people who head straight to the front of the line. Our part of the queue gets pretty irate, trying to figure out what is going on, hoping the police guarding the queue will stop these people from jumping the line. Instead:

—CITIZENS! CAN YOU PLEASE BE QUIET!
—We weren’t making any noise…
—Why’ve they pushed in?
—And who the hell are they, can he explain!
—CAN YOU PLEASE BE QUIET! THESE COMRADES HAVE THE RIGHT TO RECEIVE GOODS WITHOUT QUEUING! SO PLEASE KEEP QUIET AND STAY CALM!
—Who’s that?
—And who on earth are they!?
—This is disgraceful!
—What about us?!
—I REPEAT! WOULD YOU PLEASE BE QUIET AND KEEP ORDER! THE COMRADES WHO HAVE COME IN THE BUSES HAVE THE RIGHT TO BUY WITHOUT QUEUING!
—And what about us?!
—Why do they have the right?
—I also have the right!
—The sods!
—We’ve waited and waited and now look!
—What a disgrace!
—FOR THE THIRD TIME I REPEAT! THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO BUY WITHOUT QUEUING! WOULD YOU PLEASE BE QUIET! KEEP ORDER! OTHERWISE YOU’LL BE TAKEN OUT OF THE QUEUE!
—So it’s us they’re going to take away! Idiot…

I suppose the queuers know better than to start a riot, but the injustice… Anyway, our poor guy, Vadim, valiantly waits, even overnight, even through over 20 pages of roll calls, until finally a downpour begins and he’s soaked through. He finds refuge in a woman’s apartment nearby. And I do mean refuge. But then he realizes he’s missed the next roll call! Lyuda reassures him:

—You’re not late for anything.
—Why not?
—Because we’re not selling today.
—Who’s we?
—Us. The workers at the Moskva stores.
—What’s the Moskva stores got to do with it?
—What it’s got to do with is that we organised the sale…ooooaawaah…and today we’ve got stock-taking in every department…
—So?
—So nothing. Go to sleep. And the day after tomorrow I’ll take you to the depot and you’ll get to choose whichever you want…

—What about the queue? I don’t understand…there are people queuing out there….
—So let them queue. They’ll have to wait till the day after tomorrow.
—What, do you…d’you have something to do with the queue then?

I thought Vadim’s horror at this would send him running to get dressed and get away from this evil woman but…he listens to her and lies back down and goes back to sleep, with the woman who’s getting out of stock-taking by taking pretend sick leave and saying “let them stew in their own juice.” It’s that oneiric slumber again. Creative destruction is scary, but my god, hell really is other people (sometimes, at least).

I mentioned above some 20 pages of roll calls, and that’s really the most effective thing about this novel: the way the structure makes the reader live through the queue itself. “—Likhanov! —Yes! —Mikhailova! —Yes!” over and over. Vadim and Lyuda have sex and we have page after page of “—Ha! —Ah. —Ha! —Aaaah…oh…” Also blank pages for sleepytime. It’s all well done, and you get so into the atmosphere that it doesn’t feel at all gimmicky or annoyingly “pomo.” It just feels long and winding and meandering and a little horrifyingly futile by the end. But in a good way.

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.