Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Line

There are places all over the world where waiting in line or queuing up is done with good grace. Not so in the U.S. Here we know we will be in line at the DMV and the deli counter and we can pull it together and struggle through but put us in a line at the bank, the checkout or the bathroom and life quickly becomes intolerable.  Juxtapose that with the images of Japanese citizens who lost loved ones, their homes, their treasured mementos and their livelihoods in the earthquake in March and yet waited patiently in day-long lines for everything.

You cannot think about the bad old days of the U.S.S.R. without thinking of  the endless lines for bread, toilet paper and seemingly all of life’s necessities. Apparently lines could form in an instant if a report circulated that an item was about to be scarce. Life taught that no matter what the prize at the end of the line was going to be it was something that you shouldn’t risk not getting when you could. It’s this Soviet experience that is the starting point for the novel The Line by OlgaGrushin.
The line that  Grushin forms in her story  is for concert tickets. It is Leningrad 1962 and rumor has it that the great Selinsky (Think Stravinsky.) will be returning for a concert after years of political and artistic exile. Wife, mother and teacher Anna sees the queue, hears the whispers and joins the line. It doesn’t matter that if the concert is happening that it won’t be until the following year.  Soon the line is 300 people long. There they wait through winter, spring and fall in front of the closed kiosk. Not only is the concert a rumor but so is the on sale site for the tickets. Once in a while the kiosk opens, the lined up sigh happily but the tickets turn out to be for state sanctioned folk dance performances. Still the music lovers stand their ground.

Anna and her family take turns waiting in line. Husband Sergei longs to be part of real music. He makes a living as a tuba player in a band that performs at parades and state sponsored celebrations. Sergei and Anna have a do-nothing, ungrateful son, Alexander . He is supposed to be attending classes at the University but isn’t. He wants a ticket in order to scalp it. Grandma sees the ticket as a reminder of her youth. She was a ballerina back in the Czar days and was for a brief moment Sergei’s mistress.
The Line and the line both move at a slow pace but I was so caught up in the exaggerated interactions, the misadventures and the strategies  of the lined up that it was only an occasional issue for me. Using the conceit of the line as a way to tell the story and recreate the U.S.S.R., Grushin builds a picaresque Waiting for Godot kind of community. The odd suspense of waiting or maybe worry about those waiting, the cross section of society and the culture of being in line all come together with Grushins’ talent and make a very interesting,  pleasing  and a little exotic read.

P.S. The cover on the paperback above? It looks the boarding line for a Carnival cruise. Take a look at the art for the hardcover edition. Much better don't you think? Evocative and attractive.
You know where you are going to be but nothing is given away. Good job.

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