Updated on August 5, 2015
28. ‘The Queue’ by Vladimir Sorokin
Last year I reviewed a book called ‘Plainsong‘, which was fantastic for its mundanity. It was just a glimpse into real life – its small triumphs and failures – and I absolutely loved it. Now imagine that book set in Soviet Russia. In a queue. Written entirely in dialogue.
I LOVED this book. It is pure dialogue; there isn’t even any “he said”, “she said”, so you have to work out who is speaking just by what they say. This isn’t always easy, of course, but the voices often end up merging together quite pleasantly.
The story is set in a queue which, according to the introduction, is typical of the sort of queues that were rife in the Soviet Union at this time. Certain commodities were rare, so people would spend hours queueing for newly imported things that they couldn’t get anywhere else. In this case the queue goes on for several days and it’s not clear to the reader what the people are queueing for. Some of the people in the queue don’t even seem to know what they’re waiting to buy. The precious item is deliberately elusive: sometimes people talk about its colour or size or function, until it becomes clear that they’re not all talking about the same thing at all. I think that’s fantastic. The queue is confusing and strange and nobody knows where it’s going.
The narrative voice seems to follow a man called Vadim. When he goes to sleep the narrative stops – there are literally blank pages whilst he dozes – and as he moves about and even leaves the queue, we go with him. Vadim is a bit of a womaniser. When he first joins the queue he meets a woman called Lena, who he flirts with for a while until other people around him start referring to her as ‘his girlfriend’, but when she leaves he moves onto a different woman. Minor spoiler: there’s a couple of sex scenes in the book. Imagine that in pure dialogue!
In a way the queue takes on a life of its own. It bends and moves to reach shady spots or stalls selling drinks; it breaks up in the evenings and reconvenes in the mornings (with appropriate lists made so everybody gets back in the right place). There are small kindnesses and moderate arguments. To repurpose Samuel Johnson, “There is the queue all that life can afford.”
This little book is wonderful. It’s ambitious, thoughtful and a big middle finger to convention. It even has a happy twist ending! Just brilliant.
“Aaah … there’ve always been wars and there always will be.”
“Are you a journalist then?”
“No, worse than that. I’m a writer.”
I bought this one in Hay-on-Wye at the Literature Festival, in one of the town’s many little second hand bookshops. I’d never even heard of Sorokin before, but when I read the blurb I knew that it had to be mine.