Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue is a weird book. Written in 1983, it takes place in a Soviet queue. And entirely in dialogue. None of the dialogue is attributed; at times, you can go on for several pages before you find your bearings and understand who’s talking. At one point, there’s twenty pages of roll calls, just an endless list of Russian names followed by “yes” or “we’ll remove him from the list…” Then there’s the passage towards the end of the book where we get page after page of Ooh’s and Ah’s. Nobody knows what they they’re waiting for, only that it’s imported goods of some kind. Probably one third of the dialogue is endless speculation about this mysterious product’s origin — Yugloslavia? Sweden? Czechoslovakia? America? — and its various features, and, comically, no one acknowledges the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about when they discuss the virtues of some brand of something — fur? blue-green or gray? — that they’ve been standing in line to get forever. It’s a wonder that it’s as readable as it is. After a while, you get into a sort of groove and the pages fly by. Characters and a sort of plot emerge: principally, there’s Vadim, a young man who meets a woman in the queue; on day two, she abandons him for an older man, a writer who waits in line not because he needs to, but because he feels he needs the experience as a writer; after this, Vadim gets drunk with a couple of fellow queuers; towards the end of the story, he meets an older woman who, as it turns out, knows a way around the queue.
Sorokin has a great ear for dialogue. His endless stream of chatter sounds exactly like it could have been snatched out of a days-long queue. The total lack of artifice is striking: we understand what’s going on, even without any authorial intrusions or “as you know, Bill, we are now moving along”s. The author’s afterword, written for the New York Review of Books’ reissue in 2008, is a nostalgic eulogy for the queue as ritual. In all its absurdity, it was a staple of everyday life for millions of people, for decades. Then it was brutally snatched away with the system that enabled it. Sorokin needn’t have worried; I contend that China’s eternal traffic jams are the natural successors to Soviet queues. I await the day in the near future when every major city’s streets will become a wasteland of abandoned cars, as traffic enters permanent gridlock and people figure, fuck it, if I don’t walk away from this car right now, I’ll never make it out alive. In the meantime, perhaps some hip postmodernist can rewrite Sorokin and call the result The Jam. Publish it in English and nobody will even realize you’ve totally ripped off some Russian writer that mostly Russians and academics read. (Go on, this is an idea I’m giving away for free!)