Saturday 25 September 2021


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No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian commute by Lauren Elkin   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Well, he thought, I am not travelling on a bus in Paris, and, who knows, I may never travel on a bus in Paris, but, in the company of Lauren Elkin, even though I have not met Lauren Elkin, and, who knows, I will probably never meet Laren Elkin, I have no particular wish or need to meet Lauren Elkin, at least not in the conventional sense, and, almost certainly, Lauren Elkin will never meet me in any sense whatsoever, and she will be missing nothing thereby, nonetheless, in a sense, in her company I have been riding in my thoughts, or, rather, her thoughts, it is hard to tell which, as she has been travelling on the No.91 and No.92 buses in Paris over a few months in 2014/2015, when she was commuting to and from some teaching position she then held, evidently teaching literature, possibly writing, who knows, and wrote the notes which have become this book on her cellphone, as an attempt to use her phone to connect herself to the moments and in the locations in which she was holding it, rather than as a way of absenting herself from those locations and those moments, which is usually the way with cellphones, so she observes, they are a technology of absence, after all. Unlike in the bus, where who will sit and who will stand is constantly negotiated on the basis of a generally unspoken hierarchy of need, and the passengers are crammed together in each other’s odours and in each other’s breaths in a way that, in the light of the current pandemic, now seems horrific, there is plenty of fresh air in Elkin’s thoughts, there is room both for her fellow passengers, for all the details Elkin notices about them or speculates about them, for all her observations, so to call them, about what she notices and about what she notices about herself in the act of noticing, and for writers such as Georges Perec and Virginia Woolf, who, in their ways, are along for the ride, using Elkin and her cellphone to speak to us through Paris, though whether this makes Paris a medium or a subject is hard to say, using Elkin’s bus pass, too, and, I suppose, he thought, all these thoughts are waiting there, both outside and already aboard Elkin’s mind, constantly negotiating which will be next to take a seat in Elkin’s text on the basis of a generally unspoken hierarchy of need, if it is need. Elkin attempts in the practice of these notes a written appreciation of the ordinary, even the infraordinary, aspects of her journeys as a discipline of noticing, guided by Perec (read my review of Species of Spaces and Other Pieces here), a turning outward that clears her thoughts or clears her of her thoughts, he cannot decide if there is a difference, he thinks not, leaving the shape of the observer clearly outlined in their surroundings by their careful lack of intrusion upon them (in the way that Perec is always writing about something that he does not mention), but this exercise in finding worth in the ordinary, the sensate, the unsenational, against, he speculates, the general inclinations of our cellphones, is, in the two semesters in which Elkin made these notes, sometimes intruded upon by occurrences antagonistic to such appreciation, occurrences both within Elkin’s body: an ectopic pregnancy and the resulting operations; and in the collective body of the city: terror attacks that change the texture of communal life. “In an instant, the everyday can become an Event,” writes Elkin. Are Events inherently antagonistic to the worth of ordinary life, he wonders, or could rethinking the ordinary help us to resist the impact of such Events? Most Events are instants, he thinks, but some, such as pandemics or climate change, go on and on, exhausting our conceptual resistance as they strive to become the new ordinary, to normalise themselves. Conceptual resistance is useless, he almost shouts, conceptual resistance is worse than useless, we must adapt to survive, reality deniers display the worst sorts of mental weakness, pay attention, your nostalgia is an existential threat. He checks his mouth for froth, but there is none. But, he wonders, can we use an attention to and appreciation of the infraordinary to reconstruct the ordinary and thereby survive the extraordinary? Actually, the infraordinary is all we’ve got, he thinks, so we had better get to work and make of it what we can.  

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