The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Sorokin In the Nation, Elaine Blair reviews Vladimir Sorokin's novel The Queue:

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.