This book (which was originally published in French in 2003) is the third book I’ve read by Jouet, and my second-favorite, after Upstaged, which I read in 2011. It’s, well, about a bus trip, but not really: it’s about story and possibility and motion, and it’s pleasingly metafictional, and I probably would have liked it more if I felt any particular attachment to Blaise Pascal or Charles Perrault or Puss in Boots, all of whom get referenced a fair amount. Still, pretty pleasing.
From the start, the book has a playful/serious tone: the first-person narrator opens by wondering, “among the legible world’s variety of propositions, or more specifically among those candidates under the category of road signs, which legible suggestion deserves to be called the most counter-logical and disarming” (11). (His examples: how “deer crossing” signs appear in places where you hardly ever see deer; how the bases of “no dumping” signs are often festooned with piles of trash.) It’s funny, but it’s also reflective of a concern with things and signs in the semiotic sense: the items in the pile of trash include bits of “printed material, which no longer signify by themselves, a sort of illiterate provocation aimed at overly abstract or arbitrary prohibitions” (12). There’s also something here about expectations: we see a “deer crossing” sign and are disappointed if there are no deer—this resonates with a few scenes later in the book, conversations about travel and expectations/reality/disappointment.
Jouet, of course, is a member of Oulipo, a group that works by means of literary constraint, and the idea of constraints, in story and in life, comes up numerous times in this book. “A closer look will reveal that the narrative is, in fact, rigorously following logical paths that it is unaware of, or that the current page is hiding,” the narrator says at one point (14). A central character, Basile, is the silent driver of the bus of the title: a man whose work-life is a series of constraints: places to be at certain times, tasks to complete before the bus can move, a set order of stops, a set route. (At one point, Basile rebels against all this order, driving where he wants to go, at which point the narrative also turns bewildering, disordered: the bus is in a desert; the bus is in a forest; the bus has no windowpanes; the bus is at the edge of the savanna.) Then there is freedom within the frame of a constraint: the narrator talks about a bus trip on which “only the points of departure and arrival were explicitly set, the stops in between being determined by the caprices of exhaust pipes, but nevertheless subject to my rule of no trains, no taxis, no hitchhiking, and no car rentals” (25).
Not that the book is all metafictional play and literary abstraction: I am, as you may have noticed, a sucker for good descriptive passages, and I appreciated ones like this:
It’s the icy part of the route when winter insists on it, the part where you feel sick in the morning on an empty stomach, and the part where the sun makes glorious halos two months out of the year at a precise time of the day, piercing through the fog and the trembling leaves. (30)
Or this: I’m also a sucker for writing with lists, like:
On the left, a cold plowed field, wheat grass, russet grain, the gold glint of thatched roofs and varied states of the vineyards, a bridge or terraces being built, a water tower that wasn’t there the year before, political campaign posters. Plowed fields again, subdued wheat, their husks flattened to the ground by thunderstorms, the combine harvesters occupying the entire width of the road, and the round bales like jelly rolls, products of the advent of new machines invented to conserve straw and hay. The items on Basile’s agenda: the uninhabited thatched roofs, a few larks, endless rows of structures belonging to a breeder of cooped and enclosed quails, four-furrow ploughs turning over their claws from one end of the field to the other. (55-56)
I liked the way this book is narrow and expansive at once: there’s the narrator, and Basile the bus driver, and his wife Odile, and Hans, who’s a young German tourist who says he’s got a corpse in his luggage, and the focus is pretty much centered on them and the bus: but there’s also the dynamics of schoolkids on the bus, and the dynamics of passengers on buses in general, and the stories Hans tells Odile, and a great conversation they have where she talks about the romance of travel, all the things she would see if she went to exotic places, and he keeps undercutting her words with descriptions of squalor or banality. There are also the stories Odile tells, including the story of when Basile became silent. And then there are the surreal bits, the bus-in-a-savanna/traveling impossibly bits, which I wasn’t so crazy about, but still, I’m glad I read this.