MY BEAUTIFUL BUS
by Jacques Jouet, translated by Eric Lamb
Dalkey Archive Press, 130 pages.
reviewed by Michelle Fost
Jacques Jouet’s My Beautiful Bus reminded me of an observation by a former teacher of mine, playwright Romulus Linney. In 2011, a good friend, whom I’d first met many years ago in Linney’s class at the University of Pennsylvania, e-mailed me with the sad news of his death. In his obituary, the New York Times quoted Linney, “My writing will add up to the sum total of me. The choices I make with my writing have a lot to do with myself as an unfolding personality, so that in the end your writing is really your destiny.”
Linney was an influential teacher for us young aspiring writers, always telling us to “go deeper” with our writing. Even after death, his words stopped me in my tracks.
span style=”font-family: ‘times new roman’, times; font-size: medium;”>Reading My Beautiful Bus, I found myself thinking about how a writer creates not just the worlds inside, say, plays and novels, but also—in the act of writing, in the choices of what to think about and attend to and notice, and so on—the world as the writer sees it, the writer’s life. What I appreciated about My Beautiful Bus is the great fun and, yes, beauty, that emerges from a story of a road trip that we can read at once as a fictional romp and a meditation on writing and living.
The beauty here is often in the strangeness of the details. For example, the bus drives past a saw-mill with a fire in its courtyard: “Even the smoke flows in the same direction as my beautiful bus.” And consider this lovely and surprising description of the sky: “The skies are immense. Who says you don’t see any scenery on the toll road? You see skies that are even vaster because they’ve been underlined by the road.”
Jouet is successful in getting us to think about how living, like writing and like driving, is a creative act—full of rules, routes, routines, repetitions, and patterns but not predetermined. What matters here is that there is always room for chance, for accidents, for people behaving unpredictably and for the unexpected to take place. One character asks, “What will I see? Memorable things? Uncountable things?” Another answers, “No, countable things, things that you aren’t prepared for.”
I liked watching Jouet lingering in the places his characters got to, taking his time to look around and find what interests him. Equally satisfying was his ability to compress time, to speed up the story when it suits him.
Jouet has been a member of Oulipo—the Workshop for Potential Literature—since 1983. Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino are some of the well-known members. The aesthetic of the group recognizes that the world is full of constraints, and that artists can use constraints to unlock creative potential. So, Jouet writes in Bus: “In Beaumont, we drank wine from Châteauneuf and talked with a motorcyclist, well into his fifties, who was attempting a Tour de France along a predetermined circuit—another organized trip—one that roughly draws the shape of a big heart on a road map.” Even when a route is planned, there is room for a big heart.
Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her fiction has appeared in Geist Magazine and The Painted Bride Quarterly. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Phoenix Literary Section.