Original art by Mahaut Marin-Price
Private Time, Public Transport: Reading, Writing, and Lauren Elkin’s No.91/92
A mechanical flaneur, the bus provides a windowed eye for the contained organism of the city.
By jack PETERSEN
I’m often asked how I read as much as I do. To spare you my gripes about Goodreads and numbered lists, I will give you the simple answer, one that has less to do with time or focus than numbers. Simply, one hundred and twenty-eight dollars: the first for a new subway card, the next hundred and twenty-seven to buy unlimited rides. Repeat this twelve times a year, or fewer if one travels outside the city. The results will be significant, especially if one has a place to go—a full-time job, say, the farther away the better. I have tried reading in cafes and in bed, but the distractions involved in the former and the sensory deprivation of the latter make both impossible.
There is an oft-rephrased sentiment that the only place where one can really feel alone is in a big city, and nowhere is that more true than on a crowded subway car. The spirit of no one caring what happens right next to them lives as if on steroids, everyone nursing their private anger or joy or disgust, yelling if they please, throwing up, laughing, listening to far-right talk radio. But not every person is so obedient to this social agreement, perhaps least of all Lauren Elkin.
In her idiosyncratic and brilliant new book, No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus, Elkin chronicles a year spent taking trips to and from classes she taught in Paris. As tragedy strikes the city first via the Charlie Hebdo attack and the subsequent massacre at the Bataclan, and as Elkin herself reels from a miscarriage, the iPhone notes that make up the book include mostly notes about the other people on the buses—who misses their stop, whose headphones leak profane music, and how many pregnant women can possibly end up in the same municipal vehicle. Elkin, herself an academician and fanatic of the sociological, finds that she is not the first to use the bus as an eye—and not even the first in the history of French literature.
The obvious: that “bus” comes from “omnibus;” that “omni” as a prefix means everywhere, or everything, as in omnipresent or omniscient; that the modern shortening of the word takes away the wholeness, that it reduces something philosophical to a mere motorized vehicle. The less obvious: that writers, especially French ones, have used the bus as a place of observation, a place of philosophy, a place where an ever-present dailiness lays the groundwork for the Event.
That Paris’s public transport system, RATP, takes the official stance on phones that, “Your telephone is precious. It may be envied. We recommend vigilance while using it in public,” is of no importance to Elkin. She treats the advice cheekily, repurposing vigilance to turn it into a writerly exercise. Elkin’s previous book, Flâneuse, describes the feminine version of the social role whose origin is often credited to Flaubert: the walker, the observer, the recorder of events. As the flaneur walks the city, they describe everything as it happens, stretching simultaneity over pages, mixing the sudden with the ongoing; they are the center of the world, and in their omniscience they are nearly without identity. The reality of the omnibus only heightens this. It takes away the human element of stepping, the nagging risk of tripping or juking, as it shuttles the body slowly down the street without strain. A mechanical flaneur, itself a contained organism, it provides a windowed eye for the contained organism of the city. One is a microcosm of the other, the ride comparable to an out-of-body experience.
The municipal warning, well-meaning and helpful for theft-prone tourists, is meant for an ever-individuating world, one in which small pieces of metal contain worlds of words and pictures. A phone works the same way as a room does for me or as Virginia Woolf’s writing desk worked for her: to reinforce identity with the markers and trinkets of self. In all these signifiers are safety, like a weighted blanket that may help one get lazy or fall asleep, but which shields us from observation, discomfort, anonymity in service of a collective. With her alternate vigilance, Elkin uses her yellow iPhone 5c as Flaubert and Perec used their notebooks and writing pads: to erase herself, to fill in a picture of dailiness that paves the way for the spectacular, or makes the minuscule cogs worthy of study. While Elkin rides the bus, her experiment is an attempt at returning it to the experience of an omnibus—observing and writing take her etymologically back in time.
The subway, counterintuitively, may be the truest bus of all, sans omni. On a train, there is true individuation: each person is either on their phone, listening to their AirPods with closed eyes, or, like me, reading a book. The man next to me one morning looks at the ground and cannot stop grooming his hair, fixing his jacket; perhaps he is getting ready for a job interview. The next day, a woman in one corner lights a joint and the woman next to her gets up, muttering to herself. Every day, an unmasked rider sits down on the long straight blue plastic on the 4, and everyone who was sitting there disperses. Solidarity is nowhere to be found on the subway; there is no one to alert about a missed turn; the cars themselves are separated by dark little caesurae, traversed only by confident riders and those illicitly puffing cigarettes as the train speeds through tunnels. Even the time between trains allows for separation: I can get off of one 6 train and be on the next in 3 minutes if the smell is too bad. The same is not true aboveground. The wait times between buses make irreconcilable differences necessary to accept. Two adjacent modes of transport split a city in two. Buses force us together, while on the subway, the spirit of individuation allows us to plunge into our own worlds. No vigilance necessary—perfect for reading long stretches of a short book, or short stretches of a long one.
In a rare step away from immediate observation, Elkin describes how George Perec, one of the most famous writers to emerge from OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop of potential literature”), wrote his strange, funny An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. The task, to describe every possible thing extant and occurring at Saint-Sulpice Square, is of course impossible, but brings to light the miraculous functioning of the world, the harmony or disharmony of the quotidian, the vastness of the omni-. Such observation is intense and overwhelming and may at first be too startling to share. To see the workings of life homogenizes at the same time that it brings to light what’s more quickly noticed and what only sneaks up on the observer. It brings the precariousness of the world to the forefront (I remember standing with my father on the top of the Arc de Triomphe, looking down at the roundabout traffic, when he said, “It’s amazing that no one is crashing; they all know where to go”). Most of all, though, it situates a person in the whole, working machine. Such knowledge of togetherness and its frailty can be overwhelming, but such is the writer’s job, and the omnibus may be the perfect room for it.
But I am on an antipsychotic for my anxiety and depression; in the worst stretches of mental darkness everything seems to be coming all at once, as if I were trapped in Perec’s exercise eighteen hours a day, plus nightmares. Constant observation, especially in a place as potentially stimulating as New York City, would be unbearable. So while the bus is the place for writing, there is nowhere as lonely, nowhere with as ambient a stream of events as the subway, and so, last year, I filled my hours and hours of rides with devastating AIDS literature, Hanya Yanagihara’s disappointing new lit-brick, a graphic novel about a rock dealer in provincial Japan, every short story Lydia Davis has ever published, and a few more here and there. I take the train as much as I can, and on it, I am as alone as I can possibly be.
But the train becomes a bus once a day for each rider, and only on certain trains, and only on certain days. As I cross over the Manhattan Bridge on the D, the sun sets. The brown stone of the Brooklyn Bridge turns an orange that’s not less magnificent for being so prolifically photographed; the Statue of Liberty glitters unironically out in the distance. Everyone looks up. Toddlers stand on seats. You can hear people breathe in. In these moments, some people are writers, some photographers, everyone an audience. No one, though, gets any reading done.