Tag Archives: novella

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

The queue - vladimir sorokin

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

NYRB

Looking for a short, experimental, soviet-era novel? We-he-hell, look no further!

The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin is set in Russia as the Soviet economy is stagnating into entropy. Commodities are hard to come by so whenever something good shows up, everybody rushes to buy it. I think it used to be a kind of joke back then that anyone who saw a line of people would naturally join it. It got to the point where nobody would buy anything from a shop that didn’t have a queue outside, assuming that the shop had nothing worth queueing for. People would stand in line all day to buy things they didn’t even need and, in a lot of cases, they didn’t even have to know what was at the other end.

And such is the case in The Queue. We’re never quite sure what everyone is expecting to buy and, generally speaking, neither are they. We get the occasional hint – it’s definitely American, it could be suede, they might have them in black – but all of these clues ultimately contradict each other so (spoiler alert) you never find out what’s so damned special that it attracts over a thousand hopeful Russians.

Historical idiosyncrasies aside, the style of the novel does enough to confuse the reader by itself. I say ‘novel’, but it’s teetering on the edge of becoming a script. The book is written entirely in unallocated dialogue. As the story progresses, we leave one conversation without warning and drift into an argument further along the queue. One moment, we’re listening to two people flirting with each other, the next, someone is buying a drink from a stall. Imagine what it’s like to stand still, in the middle of the street with your eyes shut, listening to the voices passing by – that’s the best way I can describe the sensation of reading this book.

Although I found it at times disorientating, I think, as an experiment, the book is just perfect. Sorokin executes the idea with a good deal of stoic Russian humour and takes us on an almost Joycean journey through all aspects of human life. But, in my opinion, the most perfect thing about the book is its length – because, as rewarding as I found the book, I know that had it been any longer, I might well have lost my patience with it.

All that said, it’s definitely worth a go. The Queue is full of gimmicks and quirks that I’d never seen elsewhere (like leaving a number of pages blank when the characters are asleep) and it has one of the strangest sex scenes that literature has to offer.

And if that doesn’t sell it…

In closing, here’s a bunch of Soviet jokes about queueing that I found on the internet:


What is 150 yards long and eats potatoes?
A Moscow queue waiting to buy meat.


Why are Russian meat shops four miles apart?
So the queues don’t get tangled up.


A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is excessively long. The man loses his composure and screams, “I can’t take this waiting in line any more, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!”

After 40 minutes the man returns, and begins elbowing his way back to his place in the vodka queue as the crowd looks on. They begin to ask if he has succeeded in killing Gorbachev, to which the man replies: “No, I got to the Kremlin, but the line to kill Gorbachev was far too long, so I decided to come back and wait for my vodka”.


Still not bored of queues in Soviet Russia yet?

Roadside Picnic: An Obsession

RoadsidePicnicI don’t read a lot of Science Fiction so when I do, I want to make sure it’s something different. The genre is filled with books we all supposedly must read before we die. You can find George R. R. Martin or Arthur C. Clarke in any bookshop any day of the week. I sell these sci-fi essentials to people all of the time and their familiarity is taking its toll.

I first became aware of Roadside Picnic thanks to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Developed by the Ukrainian company, GSC Game World, this is a violent and brutal first-person-shooter set in the abandoned wastes around the ruined Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It’s easy to assume that a video game concept such as this was dreamt up in some board room but in order to find the origins of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., we need to go back in time.

Published in Russia 1971 by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic tells the story of Red Schuhart, a Stalker. Due to some extra-terrestrial event, pockets of weirdness have popped up all over the world.  The book is set in and around one particular area, known as the Zone. This is a strange and dangerous place where the normal rules of the universe no longer apply and where alien artefacts lie waiting to be found. To prevent this from happening, the zone is cordoned off and regularly patrolled by UN forces.

Who would dare brave the traps and anomalies of the Zone? Stalkers, like Red Schuhart of course. Because of their unique scientific value, the alien artefacts are worth a pretty penny on the black market. Red is after one artefact in particular, the legendary ‘golden sphere’. Stalker hearsay says that this artefact can grant wishes.



This is a novel filled with strangeness and wonder – not a plot-driven thriller. The images of an abandoned, overgrown landscape are beautiful and the characters deal with an existential angst that Satre would have been proud of.  One man who sought inspiration from Roadside Picnic was the enigmatic Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Mirror).

In 1979, Tarkovsky directed the movie, Stalker. Loosely based on Roadside Picnic, it’s a very long, very artsy film containing extended, hypnotic scenes where the characters are evidently just waiting for something to happen.  The unnamed Stalker leads two men known only as the Writer and the Professor through the zone to find a room.

Guess what this room does.

The wish-granting room lies at the end of an intricate path of invisible perils, haunting images and whispered Russian poetry. I don’t expect Stalker is everyone’s cup of tea but if you like Soviet art films of the 70’s, you might just fall in love with it.

zona_gq_21dec11_642Geoff Dyer is in love with Stalker. He’s into it in a big way. Last year, he wrote Zona, a scene-by-scene description of the movie including biographical details and miscellaneous trivia. You could consider it the script of an unrecorded commentary track. In Zona, Dyer himself questions the commercial logic behind writing a book about a film that few people have seen but it’s of little consequence to him – he has nurtured a love for the film for most of his adult life and this book is an expression of that love. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that he has gained at least one satisfied reader.

As for Roadside Picnic, I’ll admit that from a bookselling point of view, it’s a hard one to shift but every now and then, I get talking to a particular kind of customer. They don’t normally read science fiction, but when they do, they want to make sure that it’s something different. For good or ill, these curious few trust my recommendations. And I do recommend Roadside Picnic whole-heartedly. If you too are sick of the old sci-fi clichés and want something unexpected, this is the way to go.

Equally, if you want to read a very funny book about a film you’ve never seen, pop along to your favourite bookshop and get them to order you a copy of Zona…because they probably won’t have it in stock.