Literary segment

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute Review

by Rachel McHale | 19 May 2022

You’re on the bus, staring at your phone, again. Earphones in, scrolling through Instagram, choosing another song on Spotify, falling down a Youtube rabbit hole: anything to distract you from the sounds, sweat and very existence of the people around you, many of whom also stare down at screens. This sight is all too common on public transport. But it is precisely what American writer Lauren Elkin works against in her latest book Notes on a Parisian Commute: no. 91/92. Whilst most people fill their commutes with screen-staring to take them out of their immediate world, instead Elkin uses her phone to observe and record the world in front of her, writing short but insightful snippets in the Notes app of her iPhone 5c.

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Île-de-France bus network map, RATP

The premise is simple: write, or rather type, on the bus during the daily commute to and from work. And from September 2014 – May 2015, that’s what Elkin did. Travelling to the college where she teaches, Elkin takes the 91 and 92 bus lines from the 5th arrondissement to the 7th arrondissement before 9am and the same buses back again during the afternoon at any point between 1pm and 5pm. The concept is a nod to the Oulipo (Ouvrir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature) group, a group of experimental writers who imposed constraints on their writing, including Georges Perec who famously wrote the novel La disparition (A Void) without the letter ‘e’. Indeed, Elkin references Perec and his Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris in one of several literary influences interweaved throughout the book. Though the concept may be limiting in principle, what ensues is a fascinating chronicle of daily Parisian commuter life and reflection on the boundaries between self and other.

Sometimes humorous, sometime serious, Elkin’s musings range from the fashion sense of fellow passengers to the grave delays of the Parisian buses, from the changing of the seasons to children’s attempts to entertain themselves en route. These thoughts and moments – that might usually be deemed too inane and capricious to be published in a book – are exactly what makes the text come alive. Voicing the kind of comments we’ve all internally made (such as ‘it should be illegal to wear perfume on public transport. And to eat crisps’), Elkin captures the frustrations of rubbing up so close with strangers and the perfect scapegoat they can become for all that is wrong that day.

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RATP bus line 91 map, RATP

Acutely attuned to the specifics of commuter bus travel, Elkin grapples with bus etiquette and the instances that break the unwritten rules: the danger of accidentally woman-spreading – ‘when your bag verges onto the seat next to you subtly discouraging anyone from sitting down’; the simultaneous gratitude and guilt that stems from getting a seat on a busy bus, unable to determine if other passengers are more deserving; and the moment the driver and passengers break the fourth wall to share in commiseration as the bus is on diversion.

 

Yet entries as comic and simple as these are interspersed amidst heavier topics; the individual and the collective commingle as Elkin suffers an ectopic pregnancy a few months after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher terrorist attacks. Coloured by loss, personal and collective, the city and its everyday hustle and bustle are imbued with a greater significance. The reverberations of the terrorist attacks are felt as everyone endeavours to continue with daily business ‘even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week’; tears are shed; rush hour fearfully resumes. Pregnant women’s protruding bellies intrude, becoming an unwelcome reminder of what could have been. Mapping thoughts and feelings onto the bus rides through Paris, Elkin crafts an affecting account of the way we muddle through with one another, not knowing what lies behind each passenger’s journey.

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RATP bus line 92 map, RATP

Elkin’s final entry, written on the Metro in November 2015 in the immediate aftermath of further terrorist attacks in northern Paris, touches on potentiality. What if? What if we had got off the train one stop earlier? What if we hadn’t gone back to pick up a bag? In a manner reminiscent of Joan Didion, Elkin explores the blurred line between the everyday and the Event, the moment when the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary. This focus on the everyday is not banal, for, as Elkin contemplates, it is the everyday of which the victims of these attacks are so brutally deprived. The everyday binds us to one another and ‘the moments of history which shatter our everyday are moments to redefine our togetherness’. Just as watching the world go by from the bus window provides an insight into the city, this book provides a window onto the city’s inhabitants and, above all, community.