Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In America, The Line waits for you

(Wow, my dashboard informs me I have made 50 posts. I had no idea I would write that many; coming in, I'd only envisioned ideas for 5 or 6. On that note, please let me know if you have anything you'd like me to write about; I'm always looking for new material. Thank you for tuning in thus far, and hope I will find us all happy and well by the time another 50 are up! )

On a whim, I requested Olga Grushin's The Line from the library. Last week, I found it waiting for me, and since the NYPL has a two-week checkout policy for new books, I was in a bit of a hurry to read it. (I started it only a few days ago, having read my other, less-notable, two-week loaner first.) The Line, its title reminiscent of The Trial, The Nose, and other such cheery European fare, lives up to much of what that comparison implies. It's the story of a family in an indeterminate Soviet Russia (in her afterword, Grushin explains she borrowed from three different time periods to create the time of her story) who take turns waiting in a line for a year. What's the line for, you ask? It's some time before the characters learn the answer, but it turns out it's for tickets to a concert conducted by Stravinsky--well, his sound-alike Igor Selinsky. (You may as well know, or maybe guessed already, this is why I was inspired to check out the book.)

But The Line is not a tale of Stravinsky, really: it's about the slow and difficult passage of time--of course, since it features people waiting in an interminable line (though they do go home each night and return the following day, according to a sort of numbering system someone's set up). There are some glorious tales of a heroic Selinsky rescuing refugees, touring minarets, and geenrally swashbuckling it up (but did he really?); and there are some lovely and sad moments where characters try to listen to his music, or struggle to imagine what it might be like. But really The Line is a story about waiting, and about a family in all its complexity...

And all its unlikeability. I was surprised by how much I disliked each of the main characters, even as I sympathized with their struggle to get the ticket. Not that this struggle itself is fully noble (or unnoble, either; it's complicated, a sort of mass Gift of the Magi situation). Anna, the first line-waiter, has promised the ticket to her aging mother, a ballerina who danced in Selinsky's ballets and may or may not've had a relationship with the genius himself; but, depressed by her failing attempts to rehabilitate her marriage, she fixes on giving it to her husband Sergei instead. Sergei wants to present the ticket to Sofia, a fellow line-waiter he romanticizes. (She, in turn, waits for someone else.) Anna and Sergei's son, Alexander, wants to sell the ticket on the black market, so he can get far far away from all this. I found Alexander the least sympathetic of this lot (though to be sure, everyone's actions have far-reaching and often negative consequences): he disappoints his parents, loses all their money, gets involved with a nefarious crowd, cuts school...but his yearning to take a train out of the city is beautiful, and beautifully described, even if doomed; and by the end of the story he, and the others, seem poised on the brink of changing their relationships for the better.

A little more than halfway into my voyage through the story, I checked out some critics' reviews (including a NYT one by Elif Batuman, whose The Possessed I recently read and loved. Check out her blog--it's far wittier and insightful than this here hack's). It was interesting to me that the book seemed to have a polarizing effect on reviewers: one's first sentence described it as "disappointing"; another declares it "recommended ecstatically."

As for me? Well, I agree with the first reviewer (from Publishers Weekly) who opines that in the novel "it is observed that standing on a line is 'a very efficient way of disposing of people’s time.' But however efficient, it’s never entirely enjoyable." Partly my lack of enjoyment stems from the fact that I was reading on a deadline. But even more, The Line's evocation of the crushingness of time, the futility of life, is convincing and compelling. So much so that I discovered that I'd got through more than half of it yesterday, in a bit of a gloomy realize that I hadn't really talked to anyone all day. Though today's pages provided some more hope, they couldn't fully dispel the grim mood of the previous ones.

Looking back at that last paragraph, I would say my choice of "got through" is telling; like PW's reviewer, I couldn't call my reading enjoyable. I am reminded of a writing workshop I attended once, where a classmate read aloud her work and the teacher said how unremittingly depressing and heavy it was. "That's the feeling I wanted to evoke," my classmate replied; and my teacher cautioned her that that might not be the way to win readers. Grushin did win my not-too-divided attention for a couple of days, but she didn't win my happiness. I am certainly not one to suggest that life be sunshine and rainbows all the time, but I'm disappointed that I consumed much of yesterday with grumpiness, when life is really quite good at the present. Ah well, I hope I shall emerge from the experience with a new appreciation of my own time, spent waiting or not.

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