The Wait: On Vladimir Sorokin
A few years ago during a family visit in St. Petersburg, my grandmother, who has never been outside Soviet borders, asked me if Russians now had, in their stores, everything that you could buy in the United States. I thought, for some reason, of shampoo and the eight or ten different kinds of it for sale at the Western-style supermarket in my grandmother's unassuming neighborhood. And I thought of the department stores and boutiques on Nevsky Prospect, where, if you wanted to spend more money on your shampoo, you had a choice of another eight or ten different European and American luxury brands. Then I thought of the dozens, possibly hundreds, of different brands of shampoos to be found in an American city, each with its own complicated semiotics signaling that the shampoo was high-tech or discount or handmade on a commune. How to explain the minute, absorbing consumer choices that made fools of us every day? "You have as much of everything as anyone could want," I told her. "But for some reason we have...even more."
At this point it's only a difference of degree between the obscene bounty of America's consumer republic and the slightly more modest bounty (for those who can afford it) of free-market Russia. But for many decades of the past century the universe of Soviet consumption was the flip side of the American one: many people had enough money to buy the things they coveted, but such items only rarely appeared in stores. These peculiar conditions of Second World consumerism are the background of The Queue, the first novel--originally published in 1985 in Russian, in Paris--by Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia's funniest, smartest and most confounding living writers. Sorokin, born in 1955, has become an elder statesman of Russian postmodernism, with a career spanning Soviet stagnation, perestroika and the transformation of Russia into a free-market and increasingly autocratic state.
The Queue, which is being published for the first time in the United States, is set in an enormous line that forms one summer afternoon in the 1980s in Moscow, a line that about 2,000 people eventually join, over the course of two days, in order to have a chance to buy--something. It's never entirely clear what they're so eager to buy. In one of the novel's running jokes, Sorokin keeps hinting at different kinds of items. At first the goods seem to be shoes from Yugoslavia (or possibly Czechoslovakia or Sweden), then jeans from the United States, then suede jackets from Turkey. Certainly they are imports: the Soviet versions of all these things could be bought in a store without much queuing, but their shoddiness was a familiar, insulting and inescapable fact of Soviet life. David Remnick recalls in Lenin's Tomb, his book about the fall of the Soviet Union, an exhibit he attended in 1989 at Moscow's Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Mounted in the frank spirit of glasnost, it was called "The Exhibit of Poor-Quality Goods" and featured "ruptured shoes, rusted samovars, chipped stew pots, unraveled shuttlecocks, crushed cans of fish, and, the show-stopper, a bottle of mineral water with a tiny dead mouse floating inside." One could blame perverse incentives, mismanaged supply chains and bureaucratic corruption for this state of squalor; but two customers in Sorokin's queue hit upon a more straightforward explanation while comparing American and Soviet economies: "They have to work their asses off over there, but here if you come drunk to work it's no big deal."
The Queue is written entirely in dialogue, composed of bits of conversations that take place among the people waiting in line. The most pressing subject for the queuers is what they're about to buy. They wonder about the color and style of the goods (Gray-blue? Brown? Leather or faux suede? Do they have astrakhan collars?) and the country of origin. A certain camaraderie forms among the queuers: they exchange friendly advice (where to buy cabbages and carnations, and which foreign brand of stereo is best) and apply a great deal of ingenuity to making the line less wearisome. When someone in the queue reports that there is a kvass stand nearby, an enterprising comrade has the idea of rerouting the line so that everyone can walk by the stand and buy a drink. And then there are the general protocols of the Soviet queue to be observed: in order to keep such a long line going overnight, one of the saleswomen assigns everyone a number in the evening and reads the roll call the next day to reconstruct the line. Sorokin devotes about thirty pages to documenting the roll call, dozens of names and yeses, punctuated by the irritable reprimands of the saleswoman. This is the essential absurdity of the workers' paradise in the 1970s and '80s--the cooperation, the cleverness, the colossal waste of effort required to work the system to procure a pair of sneakers or jeans.
Shortages of goods, and Soviet citizens' acute desperation for goods, are the wellspring of generations of Soviet jokes, private and literary. When the devil visits 1930s Moscow in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (written mostly in the '30s but not published in full until 1973), he makes a guest appearance in a variety show as a magician. Among other inexplicable tricks, he turns the stage into a Parisian boutique selling silk dresses and stockings, leather shoes and designer hats. The women in the audience storm the stage, change out of their clothes and throw on every last piece of European merchandise. They leave behind an enormous pile of their shabby Soviet-made dresses and shoes. Even in the Brezhnev era, when the most dire shortages--for staples like butter and eggs--were a thing of the past, waiting, and not getting, was still part of the essential Soviet condition. The Muscovites in Sorokin's queue live in a universe of ten-year waiting lists for cars and apartments, on the one hand, and the sparsely stocked shelves of Soviet grocers and shops on the other.
Though no narrator ever intrudes on The Queue's conversations, characters do crystallize from the chatter. The central figure is a young man named Vadim, who, in the line, meets and courts a college student named Lena. But she's fickle: while taking a lunch break, Lena is lured away from Vadim by an older man--a smooth-talking writer--who persuades her to ditch the line, bragging that he can get her "as many grey-blue ones" as she wants.
After the disappointment of losing Lena, Vadim falls in with a couple of guys who offer to split a bottle of vodka with him. He pops into a nearby grocery store, looking for something to eat with their vodka.
--Have you got any sausage?
--No, there's none in today.
--Then I'll have two bottles of buttermilk.
--We're out of buttermilk. You can have yoghurt.
Having secured their places with another person waiting in line, they slip out and get drunk. Vadim passes out on the ground in a courtyard, is awakened by a child politely trying to retrieve a toy truck on which Vadim had collapsed, and rejoins the line hung over. Eventually a rainstorm forces the crowd to run for shelter, and Vadim ends up in the nearest apartment building, where he bumps into a woman, Lyuda, who invites him upstairs for dry clothes and food. She fries potatoes and sausage, he compliments her on her haircut, they discuss the work of Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, and soon nearly the only sounds to be heard are monosyllabic sexual exclamations--about ten pages of them.