by Olga Grushin
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The afterword to Olga Grushin’s second novel, The Line, explains that her book is based on Igor Stravinsky’s 1962 visit to Russia, the great composer’s return home after fifty years abroad. More than five thousand fans waited a year in line for a concert he would conduct, establishing schemes to preserve their places and forming “a unique and complex social system.” While the historical circumstances were singular, this makeshift community was not. Elaborate queues were an important part of the Soviet system: People waited in rows for everything—food, clothing, medicine, travel permits—and the line came to form an essential public space, a secular “ritual,” a “fantastic, many headed monster, the hallmark of socialism,” as it has been described by Vladimir Sorokin, author of the 1985 comic novel The Queue, about a group of Soviet citizens standing in a line.
Unlike The Queue, Grushin’s novel ranges further than its titular formation, exploring the lives of Sergei and Anna, a husband and wife, and their son, Alexander. These three take turns waiting to buy tickets for the rumored return of the legendary composer Igor Selinsky. Sergei has treasured Selinsky’s suppressed music since his youth, but he can’t express to his wife the full measure of his love for Selinsky’s work—nor, for that matter, can he admit that he no longer loves his wife and lusts after another woman in the line. (Few characters in this book manage to share more than a sentence of honest emotion before they’re cut off, either by themselves or by a misunderstanding interlocutor.) Anna wishes to give the ticket