[Semiotext(e); 2021]

In October 1974, the French novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and member of the Oulipo, Georges Perec spent three days behind café windows in Place Saint-Sulpice attempting to record everything that passed through his gaze: the numbers of buses, what the birds and people were doing, a wedding and a funeral in the square, the street signs and symbols, and the light and shadows of the days and evenings. This inventory of observations became Perec’s diaristic short novel, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. The author intended to achieve a sort of truth through the rendering of what he called the “infra-ordinary” — the mundane everyday as opposed to what he lamented was a cultural obsession with the “big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary.” Perec’s novel is unique not only for its oddly comical constraints on its narrator but its exhaustive attentiveness to everydayness. Perec’s narrator is also an interpretation of the icon of 19th century French culture, Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur, the wandering poet-philosopher who passionately observes city life and its patterns and then transforms his observations into poetic expression. Perec’s narrator coyly diverges from Baudelaire’s concept in that he is essentially fixed rather than moving within the ebb and flow of the crowd and his method of expression is a form of documentation rather than poetry.

The academic and novelist Lauren Elkin adopts Perec’s method of attentive documentation of the everyday as a model in her diaristic novel, No. 91/92: A Diary of the Year on the Bus. The novel chronicles seven months of the author’s life in Paris. This period is significant because it includes the occurrences of both collective trauma for the community of Paris, in the form of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and personal trauma for the author, when she suffers a miscarriage several months afterwards. From September 2014 to May 2015, while riding the 91 bus and then the 92 bus between her apartment and the university where she taught literature, she observed the city and her fellow passengers through the camera of her iPhone and recorded her observations on her phone’s Notes application. In an opening entry to the book, Elkin writes that she intends to transform her iPhone from an object for distraction and dissociation into a lens for focused observation of the world. Her experiment is a rebirthing of Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris for the digital age: her seat on the bus is the equivalent of Perec’s café window, while she also localizes her seeing and hearing to the small, finite area of the No. 91/92 bus routes. Like in Perec’s novel, Elkin’s flaneur narrator is passionately engaged with the seeing and recording of the mundane, especially among her fellow Parisians. Her method of observation echoes Baudelaire’s original conception of the flaneur as a “passionate spectator . . . [who] sets up house in the heart of the multitude.” It is also quietly subversive in our current moment of fiction-writing when most flaneur narrators like those of Teju Cole, Tao Lin, and Rachel Cusk are alienated rather than engaged, extremely interior rather than outward-looking. In this fashion, Elkin adopts Perec’s diaristic form and heightened engagement not only to lovingly render a place but also to represent the self within the collective of the Parisian community, when both are besieged by personal and public traumas.

The novel presents itself as a barely altered journal composed of a series of diary entries typically recorded with unswerving regularity during either the author’s morning or afternoon bus commute towards or returning from her university. This form is consistent throughout both the first and second parts of the novel, the first representing the author’s first fall semester of teaching and the second describing her second semester during winter and spring. The framing of each entry on the page is also striking for its consistent formatting, with a single entry’s brief, fragmentary paragraphs followed by an expanse of white space. This space might alternatively have been filled with a second or third entry. There are pages left entirely blank to signify long passages of time. In the manner of Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary and Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, the novel is naturalistic in its representation of the journal, seeking to reproduce rather than subvert its form. Elkin’s journalistic structure, with its regular entries and sudden punctuations of white space, seeks to simulate the slow, syncopated rhythm of time in everyday life, with all its protracted pauses, its unexpected accelerations, and the ongoingness of routine. This idea of writing as a means of marking time slows down and dilates time, opposing the contraction of time produced by our digital age of immediate, telegraphic tweets, news notifications, and text messages. Elkin explicitly articulates her desire to slow down time through a naturalistic approach to writing inspired by Perec: “That book strikes me as less a means of writing for someone, and more a means of making sense of the world. Like: things are out of control. Slow down. Count the buses. Pattern the world.” The slowing down of time is most marked during the novel’s entirely blank pages and Elkin’s experience of her pregnancy, when the content of her reflections, the counting of days through the precise dating of each page, and the abundance of white space between entries suggest the protraction of time during interminable waiting:

04/10/15

Friday afternoon

It should be illegal to wear perfume on public transport.

And to eat crisps.

04/14/15

Tuesday morning

The impatience and the having to wait of pregnancy.

This will teach you time.

The diaristic form of the novel also becomes a means of representing the embodied self changing through time. Elkin’s writing possesses a raw physicalness, one that is keenly attuned to her body’s aches, ills, and sensations. She unabashedly confesses them with a Rabelaisian absorption with smells, the uncouth, and the body’s uncontrollable processes. Throughout the novel, the author’s body is never truly well and never even recovers a semblance of equilibrium. During her first semester, she copes with constant fatigue, while in the second, she is stricken with symptoms of pregnancy followed by the physical and psychic blows of the miscarriage. She is either getting sick, within the throes of sickness, or recovering from sickness. Therefore, the novel constitutes a variation on the illness diary, as it portrays the evolving body grappling with chronic illness.

Elkin’s account of illness is unique in that it situates her embodied experience within the public space of the bus as opposed to a more private space of a bedroom or hospital bed. She portrays the ill body within the society of the bus as something that eludes one’s control, something that cannot be mastered but might overwhelm one’s will. This sense of the ill body as autonomous and conspiratorial is made manifest during the first semester when Elkin tries to appear polite to a fellow bus passenger but fatigue prevents her from doing so: “I want to be polite to her to show that I too am fair and civilized and well-brought-up. But my voice betrays me. It’s rough and uncouth, the voice of fatigue and illness, the uncontrollable, the abject. I am a bit more body than mind.” She writes elsewhere of the loss of control over the ill body within the community of the bus: “Coughing it up and nowhere to spit it. In public that is.” The last stage in this evolution of the ill body is represented by the body that has miscarried. Elkin learns that her baby and part of her fallopian tube must be removed due to an ectopic pregnancy, the fact that the embryo is out of place in the tube rather than in the uterus. Elkin poignantly equates the literal out-of-placeness of her body’s organs with an existential out-of-placeness, an estrangement from her own body and her surroundings. This out-of-placeness recalls what the critic and novelist Jenn Ashworth has called the condition of one’s “body gone missing.” For Elkin, this estrangement from the body results in alienation from the community of the bus. When she rides the bus after the removal of her baby and the tube, she feels like “an outlier not an inlier, out of place, tubular” and “like parts of me are touching parts they’re not supposed to.” In one entry, she attempts what she calls a metro poem, likening the loss of her child in her tube to becoming lost on the bus: “Imagine amputating the grand canal. You’d be left with no way to get from one place to another, a stranded egg; make your home in some tube.” In this manner, Elkin collapses the border between the public and private, as the author’s experience of the bus and its community becomes a mental gauge for her relationship with her body.

Though the author suffers from alienation on the bus during the moments when her body feels the most ill or dysfunctional, she also frequently experiences a sense of connection with her fellow bus passengers. Elkin’s method of heightened engagement with the everyday through her iPhone allows her to observe the other passengers with both compassion and attentiveness. Though she is sometimes offended by a passenger’s rudeness or body odor, she often develops a deep empathy for her fellow Parisians. This feeling of connectedness is reflected in the second half of the book, when as a pregnant woman, Elkin tenderly observes another pregnant woman struggling to negotiate the narrow spaces of the bus:

04/03/15

Friday afternoon

A pregnant woman tries to get on but another woman nearly throws her off the step in her hurry to get on the bus first. She finally makes it on but the only open seat is inhabited by a woman’s bag. The pregnant woman is able to make her move it but only with effort. The woman thinks her bag needs her seat more than a woman with a soccer ball for a stomach.

The author’s personal journey of loss, though central, is interwoven with the fragmented journeys of her fellow passengers. In this way, the novel conveys a collective experience by becoming a repository for the many stories of the other travelers. Though Elkin is buffeted between alienation and togetherness while riding the bus, she is firmly situated within the community of the bus and Paris, more broadly.

However, the bonds formed within this collective are transient flashes of connectedness rather than extended relationships. For example, Elkin never engages in conversation with the pregnant woman who she so sympathetically observes. Their bond is momentary, suggesting a possibility for deeper connection but dissolving once they disappear from each other’s lives. Nevertheless, Elkin suggests that there is power in these momentary bonds of community. The narrator’s recognition for the potential of deeper connection with other members of the community fosters a sense of unity. Importantly, these bonds of community cultivate a closeness essential for a community’s healing through public trauma. This is illustrated during the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when Parisians are seized with terror, paranoia, and deep anxiety. The closeness felt through the bonds of community helps to lessen their suspicion and fear of each other. A few months after the attacks, Elkin writes of the comfort of being pressed against other bodies on the bus, as if they were giving her a warm embrace: “L’heure de pointe is what they call it but there’s nothing pointy about rush hour, just a press, warm people pressed against each other’s bodies, like some kind of wordless woolly love-in. I guess we need each other.” The novel performs important work in that it affirms the significance of community bonds in a time when our cities are becoming increasingly alienated and fragmented.

One of Elkin’s unique formal choices is to background the Charlie Hebdo attacks within her entries so that they are never explicitly described and only obliquely evoked. The attacks are only mentioned by name in the book’s foreword and afterword. This choice reflects Elkin’s desire to focus on the everyday as opposed to what she calls an Event, or a massive trauma, whether private or public. For Elkin, the reclamation of the infraordinary, even when it is shadowed by an Event, represents an act of recovery because it allows one to learn to live with a new reality. She writes of focusing on the altered everyday as a way of working through the aftermath of the attacks: “We can’t get over what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, who we’ve lost, and we don’t really want to. But we’ll eventually get used to the fact that it happened. It will become part of our daily lives.” Here, Elkin’s choice to direct her gaze away from the Event is not willed ignorance but a radical way of adapting to a world transformed by trauma.

In this brief yet quietly radical book, Elkin’s formal constraints — its diaristic form, its method of heightened engagement with the world from an extremely localized space, its focus on the infraordinary — allow her to cultivate not only a novel way of seeing but also a novel way of existing within a community. Elkin’s book belongs to the tradition of the Oulipians not only because of its rigorous formal constraints but also because of its emphasis on the everyday in a fabric of interwoven lives within the Parisian community. This emphasis suggests a cosmopolitan ideal of existing within a community that rejects detachment from others for empathetic attention, that promotes togetherness as opposed to isolation. In the aftermath of the attacks, this engaged manner of living within the community develops in the author a more emotionally invested relationship with Paris and her fellow Parisians: “I find myself looking at the other people in the city with a new care. They’re no longer people in my way. I would feel badly if one of you got hurt. I would hurt if you hurt.” She develops an obligation towards others, a protective sense of closeness. In these moments of public trauma, the community not only provides comfort but redefines notions of togetherness between its citizens. This entry is representative of the radical nature of Elkin’s book not only for the way it deeply relates the self to the collective experience but also because of its belief in the transformative possibility of community.

Darren Huang is a Full Stop Reviews Editor and writer based in Manhattan.


 
 
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