Vast, grand, breathtaking—English-language readers typically associate such words with the 19th-century Russian novel. Bleak, brave, subversive—those go with 20th-century Russian fiction. If it’s epic or dissident, we know how to make sense of it.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, however, Russian novels became harder to categorize. If a work wasn’t protest literature, what exactly could it be? This wasn’t a question only for readers of English translations. The collapse posed an identity crisis even for writers who had long avoided protest. Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be Russia’s leading novelist, was among those whose writing seemed to be stalled during the Yeltsin period. To find his way forward as a novelist, he had to recreate a relationship to Russia’s new society, to abandon austere detachment and explore the possibility of allegiance to the public. Sorokin’s torturous sense of citizenship, which has reached a fascinating impasse in his latest novel, The Blizzard, is the key to one of the most transfixing bodies of work in world literature.
If anyone had seemed poised to flourish in a postmodern Russia, it would have been Sorokin, born in 1955 and stirring up interest by the time he was 30. Influenced by the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and ’80s, he adopted that group’s vision of artistic creations as wholly autonomous constructs, and in his early work, these constructs aren’t cause for any particular veneration. “Aren’t those just letters on a piece of paper?” he said of his work at the time. His violent, scatalogical, and distinctly unheroic fictions ran jaggedly across the epic and dissident veins of Russian literature. The Queue, first published in Paris in 1985 and composed entirely of dialogue, is set in just that, a queue: one of the long Soviet-era lines of citizens waiting for hours to receive goods—what goods, no one knows. Its satirical take on Soviet dysfunction is probably why it saw English translation in 1988. But The Queue is mostly of a piece with Sorokin’s conceptual mission: His characters standing in line are simply lined up characters on a page.