by Vladimir Sorokin
Reviewed by Elaine Blair
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.
All this proceeds without a word of exposition. We know it's raining, for example, because the queuers curse the downpour. Someone suggests to Vadim (we surmise it's Vadim; his interlocutor simply calls him "young man") that he wring out his rain-soaked shirt on the second floor of a nearby apartment building. We follow him as he complains about the dark stairwell, and we know he's bumped into Lyuda when she exclaims and he apologizes. Of course it's not always clear in the novel who's doing the talking -- sometimes there's an impressionistic babble of voices -- but neither is it hard to follow the story. Sorokin's ability to move his characters around without narration, or even dialogue attribution, is remarkable. Even more impressive, he never forces the characters to say anything awkward simply for the sake of orienting the reader. The queue might have been a ponderous metaphor -- for Soviet life, for human existence -- in a different kind of novel. But this novel is all lightness and wit. If Solzhenitsyn's three-volume document of the Gulag, based on oral accounts by Soviet citizens, is one pole of unofficial Soviet writing, Sorokin's clever trifle, spun from another kind of Soviet conversation, is the opposite.
Most of the chatter up and down the queue is the kind one hears every day -- it's deliberately, sometimes comically ordinary. People complain about the heat, about the carelessness of drivers. A mother tries to keep her small son from chasing a mangy cat. Someone starts doing a crossword puzzle out loud ("Doesn't anyone know a tributary of the Don?"). Some pensioners reminisce about better times under Stalin:
Those days, I remember, come the first of April, everything'd be cheaper -- reduction in prices, see.
Nowadays it's the other way round -- things get dearer all the time.
That's it. Yet everyone complains about Stalin.
That's all they know how to do in this country -- complain.
And yet he won the war, strengthened the country. And everything was cheaper. Meat was cheap. Vodka -- three roubles. Even less.
In his fidelity to quotidian street conversation, Sorokin thumbs his nose at Socialist realism: he offers exactly the realism that would never be permitted in official Soviet writing. The Queue's subject matter and up-to-date slang would be off limits to above-ground Soviet writers, as would his gestures toward verite -- the absence of authorial intrusion, the pages-long roll calls, empty pages representing the times when Vadim falls asleep. And then there is the ending, with its openly bourgeois moral orientation: Vadim gets to have sex and even sleep late, for Lyuda has more charms than he initially realizes, including inside information about how to get the goods without returning to the queue the next morning.
Sorokin, who began writing in the 1970s while also working as a book illustrator and artist, was part of a group of Moscow artists and writers known as the Moscow Conceptualists, who practiced what they called Sots-Art. The name is short for Socialist Art (an amalgam of "Socialist realism" and the English term Pop Art, a style that was influential for the artists) and was coined by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, its most famous practitioners, whose work included parodies of Socialist realism such as portraits of themselves posed and attired as Soviet heroes ?(a portrait of the two artists as Lenin and Stalin was part of an unofficial open-air Moscow exhibition that was bulldozed by the government). Much of Sorokin's writing before the fall of the Soviet Union likewise parodies the official style, as well as other literary modes and idioms, for he has an extraordinary ear and great wit when it comes to mimicry. One might think of Sorokin, metaphorically, as a star pupil like Komar and Melamid, who mastered the Socialist realist style taught at the Moscow Art School only to expose its fraudulence. But the practitioners of Sots-Art, unlike other generations of dissidents, were not in open, earnest confrontation with the Soviet regime; they played the fool, winking at their audience and daring the king to behead them.
The cheerful simplicity of The Queue might surprise readers familiar only with Sorokin's later writings. Sorokin is best known in the West for being the first writer to have obscenity charges filed against him in post-Soviet Russia, over sex scenes between Stalin and Khrushchev (technically, between their clones) in his 1999 novel, Blue Lard. After public protests organized by the pro-Putin youth group Moving Together, prosecutors brought, but then quietly dropped, the charges. Moving Together's moral outrage never caught fire with the Russian public, and the most notable consequence of the controversy for Sorokin was brisk sales of Blue Lard. Among literary-minded Russians there were complicated speculations that the government was behind the protests and that their real target was not Sorokin at all but his publisher, Ad Marginem, which also published other, more politically inflammatory Russian writers.
Sorokin, in any case, was an easy target. Most of his work, pre- and post-glasnost, contains graphic, unexpected violence, outre sex or flamboyant scatology. His second novel, Norma (which means the norm or the quota), written in the early 1980s and first published in 1994, contains a long series of vignettes from ordinary Moscow life, a sort of roll call of Soviet society taken with the same sensitivity to ordinary dialogue that distinguishes The Queue. At some point in every vignette, at least one of the characters unwraps and eats a brown substance that they call the norm. This substance, the reader eventually realizes, is human shit, which every citizen seems mandated to eat once a day. Though the characters complain a bit about the smell and taste, they don't rebel against the ritual: the preposterous situation has been normalized, another humiliation people have learned to tolerate. It's a more barbed critique of Soviet life than anything in The Queue, with Sorokin's deadpan realism making the outrageous premise all the more startling. But his mischief runs in more directions than just Soviet critique: Sorokin is just as happy to offend the intelligentsia with parodies of great Russian writers or to thwart pretty much anyone who expects pleasure and enlightenment from their reading. A later section of Norma, about a dacha caretaker writing to his brother-in-law in the city, breaks down into nonsense phrases, then strings of letters, then seven pages' worth of the letter "a," set into paragraphs: the rhythms of the narrative go on without any meaning or sense.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sorokin took to plundering the conventions of popular genres like science fiction and detective novels, of which post-Soviet Russians are prolific writers and readers. Ice, his only other novel thus far to be translated into English (by Jamey Gambrell), is the first of a sort of science-fiction trilogy, set in Russia, about a utopian cult whose members consider themselves to be a superior race. They identify new members by cracking open their chest walls with a special kind of interstellar ice and waiting to see if their hearts start "speaking" -- that is, communicating in a mysterious, wordless, ecstatic way with the hearts of other cult members. People whose hearts simply stop beating in response to the ice attack are mere ordinary humans ("MACHINES MADE OF MEAT"), whose bodies the cult members leave to rot. The cult's bizarre activities unfold against a Russia filled with organized and petty crime, prostitution, ill-gotten wealth and mundane poverty, which Sorokin describes in the clipped, unadorned style of a detective thriller.
One section at the novel's end is composed entirely of consumer instructions and product testimonials about the ICE Health Improvement System -- the interstellar ice has apparently gone from being a mystical object to a kind of virtual-reality self-help product (composed of a video helmet, a breast plate with a "mechanical striking arm," minifreezer and computer) that produces feelings of ecstasy and peace. Or perhaps, more to the point, the cult has found that it doesn't have to resort to brutality to find and recruit members; it only needs to offer free trials of the ICE system. In fact, according to several testimonials, the ICE system has become such a popular form of recreation that it is putting the film industry out of business. As usual, Sorokin's tone is slippery; he does not cue the reader to a particular reaction. The testimonials are offered by a cross section of former Soviet citizens -- a film director, a saleswoman, a retired World War II veteran from the Caucasus -- who describe, in their different voices, upon using the product, an initial sense of aching sadness that summons childhood memories of their first experiences with death, then a euphoric flow of emotion and a vision of holding hands in a giant circle of 23,000 other people experiencing blissful intercoronary communication. The stories they tell are punctuated by cliches of (mild) childhood trauma, personal fulfillment and creative visualization and somehow manage to be obscurely moving and ridiculous. The film director describes "such a warm, sharp feeling in my heart, the sort you have only in childhood when you experience everything directly.... Tears poured from my eyes. The tear aspirator in the helmet began to work immediately. It was such a pleasant feeling; the tears were sucked up so tenderly. I was trembling all over from this attack of universal compassion."
Sorokin is speaking our language here. The idea of people with a desire for communal connection that they can only express in the cliched phrases of self-help, New Age spirituality and advertising (rather than, for instance, Communist slogans), and can only find, ironically, through private forms of entertainment and pleasure-seeking, has been taken up with anguish by American postmodern writers for several decades. As it has in previous centuries, Russian culture seems to have zoomed through decades' worth of Western developments in a few years, to arrive at a fully formed state of late-capitalist anomie.
It is hard today not to read the The Queue retrospectively. How innocent seems the shoppers' earnest consideration of the fine points of fur collars and leather workmanship. For all their intense focus on products, it has possibly not yet occurred to them that what they buy might change who they are or give them a deeper connection with their fellow men. (They are, after all, still deprived of commercial advertising.) The novel's Moscow is a far less menacing place than the Moscow of Sorokin's recent work, and the lighter mood of the novel casts, for the contemporary reader, a nostalgic glow over the late Soviet period. Not that the times were so good, but they were better than they had been, and if you were idealistically inclined you could still hope that there might be something still better and nobler outside the Soviet system. If, at the time Sorokin wrote the novel, it was a sly joke about the absurdities of Soviet life, it has with time and geopolitical upheavals come to strike more profound notes of futility. We now know that the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the planned economy will not save most of the queueing Muscovites from consumer indignities but will simply replace the old indignities with new ones. Nor, for that matter, will the end of the empire free them from various kinds of oppression by the state, or even, in many cases, from simple poverty.
But the people in the queue don't know that yet. Time stands still in the queue; the rituals of Soviet life seem to be eternal. The frustration of waiting in line is solaced by the anticipation of whatever it is you're expecting to get -- not to mention the gruff camaraderie of these particular queuers. It seems suddenly not so bad to wait and contemplate the acquisition of a shearling coat with an astrakhan collar, to nurse a desire not yet dashed, or complicated, by fulfillment.
Elaine Blair is the author of Literary St. Petersburg. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, n+1 and other publications.