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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Beautiful Bus

Jacques Jouet

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To purchase My Beautiful Bus

Title: My Beautiful Bus
Author: Jacques Jouet
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 121 pages
Original in: French
Availability: My Beautiful Bus - US
My Beautiful Bus - UK
My Beautiful Bus - Canada
Mon bel autocar - Canada
My Beautiful Bus - India
Mon bel autocar - France
  • French title: Mon bel autocar
  • Translated by Eric Lamb

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Our Assessment:

B : trippy account of a bus ride, with great ambitions that are only half fulfilled

See our review for fuller assessment.

  Critical quotes:
  • "For all its shortcomings, Upstaged is high art compared to Jouetís My Beautiful Bus, which reads like the worst kind of self-indulgent nonsense. (It is so bad that one must wonder why the normally razor-sharp Dalkey Archive Press chose to publish it in translation; surely Jouetís long backlist holds less offensive quantities.) (...) One imagines Jouet feeling pleased with his ingenuity for putting Puss in Boots into his novel as a character, but there is nothing innovative here. This tiresome exercise typifies the Ďexperimentalismí going on in Bus, which feels more like a very willful attempt to force innovation than the actual thing. By the evidence of this novel Jouet hasnít found anything good to replace the plot that heís out to destroy." - Scott Esposito, in The End of Oulipo ? (2013)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jacques Jouet begins this novel -- told in the first person -- with a brief discussion of (road-)signage, some semiotics that also leads to the observation:

     For my part, if Iíve announced anything on the cover of my book that wonít actually appear in these pages, it can only be my name -- and not just my name, but also the possessive pronoun modifying the bus
       Yet the Dalkey Archive Press cover (by the generally far more dependable Mikhail Iliatov) features an in-your-face bus from yesteryear (that, in its head-on look, could pass for a roadster); it bears no resemblance to the 'beautiful bus' that Jouet describes in this novel. As longtime readers know, I'm not much for cover-art generally, and usually ignore it; I'm lucky enough to usually get the Dalkey titles as plain-vanilla galleys (where there is no cover art at all) -- though as it happens this book fell through the cracks somewhere and I didn't see a galley or finished copy and only got around to it once I got an e-book edition (which, thankfully, also came cover-less); nevertheless, the cover is hard to ignore, from their publicity page to the Amazon listing for the book to when you see it at your local bookstore -- and that, I'd suggest, is a problem. Not all texts can handle such a brazen cover -- and while this one doesn't exactly sink the text, it sure burdens it with more than it may be able to handle, the practically confrontational cover-bus, pointed straight at the potential reader surely makes him or her feel more like a deer in the headlights than someone who is being invited on an easy-going ride.
       The original French cover of the P.O.L. edition is identical to all the other P.O.L. covers -- and does, indeed, as Jouet claims, announce nothing else (unlike that Dalkey-bus, which shouts far too much, right at the reader). The text is always what should count, and the simple French cover allows the reader to come to the text without any pre-conceptions, beyond what associations the author, title, and publisher bring with them (which, admittedly, already adds up to quite a lot); the American cover -- aside from depicting an entirely wrong sort of bus -- already fills far too much of the reader's imagination, which then finds itself at odds with what the text actually offers. (I've always argued for uniform and essentially blank book covers, of the sort many of the French houses still offer, and a case like this really hammers the superiority of that approach home.)
       The narrator of My Beautiful Bus is essentially 'along for the ride', an observer far more than a participant, a reporter, rather than actor. Nevertheless, he stakes his position -- as shaper of this fiction -- very clearly at the outset, and he also outlines some of his ambitions. So, for example, he maintains:
Iím searching for a new form for narrative. In it, fiction will be the object of a conquest, a campaign in which the reader will be enlisted
       Somewhat misleadingly in the English translation, there's then a shift to the first person plural, making the reader rather more complicit than s/he perhaps is willing to agree to:
     We arenít looking for fiction, but rather the search for fiction. When fiction is too commandeering, it becomes nothing but mere brutality. Continuous fiction is boring. The chase is better than the catch.
       (It's a passage that shows the difficulty of translation: compare the original:
     On ne cherche pas le fiction, mais la recherche de la fiction. Quand la fiction trop est maîtresse, ce n'est plus que brutalité. La fiction continue ennuie. Mieux la traque, et non lièvre.
       Lost and/or abandoned in translation is on (a more general 'one' or 'we' or 'people in general' than the simple first person plural alternative Jouet did not use, nous), as well as the nice echoing of cherche/recherche, the idea of fiction as acting like a mistress (maîtresse), rather than just being 'commandeering', etc.)
       Jouet is also a member of the Oulipo, and so readers presumably expect Oulipian approaches to be found (or buried) here. And, indeed, the narrator explains near the outset:
At this point, the story will follow some paths that may appear whimsical on the surface. It will follow changes in the landscape and the seasons. 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.
       Here it's Jouet that is perhaps foisting too much on the reader, insisting there's more beneath the surface than readers might at first notice -- and that a 'closer look' can reveal some of the narrative's secrets. The reader thus can't enjoy the text for what(ever) it appears to be, but is reminded and assured that there's more to it -- and presumably can't help but wonder what exactly that is (and, possibly, find him- or herself frustrated in not catching and following the 'logical paths' as Jouet has laid them out). (Again, however, I'd also take some issues with the translation here, specifically: "les chemins logiques qu'à cette page elle veut encore ignorer ou cacher", which seems rather different than the idea: "it is unaware".)
       The story proper then centers around bus driver Basile, who has been at this for a quarter of a century, and an account of his usual run from Châtillon to Villefranche. As the narrator/observer admits at one point, he: "has decided to make a character out of him, at all costs" -- regardless of whether the figure of Basile is up to it or not. Among Basile's noteworthy characteristics: he does not speak (the reason for his long-standing silence -- "He had a fit of madness ... a malfunction" -- is eventually explained, in one of the stories-within-the-story). Along for the ride is his wife Odile, and one of the things that throws the journey off-course is a passenger who gets on and chats up Odile -- traveler Hans Martin, who claims he has a cadaver in his bag. (Just to remind readers of the other games he's playing, the narrator here observes that Hans Martin is: "the transversal character of my expedition, the bus being our intersection point, the element of a "character rhyme," as Raymond Queneau said about Proust and his own Witch Grass".)
       Odile's behavior then eventually leads to Basile taking rather a different route for the return trip, a far more fantastical journey not nearly as grounded in the everyday routine Basile has followed for so long. The narrator is happy to go along -- "never do I want to get off, so long as the destinies of my two -iles, Odile and Basile, have not been fulfilled" -- and finds himself on the sort of trip -- hallucinatory as much as real -- that he seems to have been after from the start, an adventure of the mind and soul. And, of course, the physical trip he describes is also one entirely of his imagination -- the writer-creator imagining these characters and their life- and bus-journeys and, eventually finding:
I did consume all of my characters. I donít have any more left in reserve. All I have left to do now is consume myself in this book, if I knew what role I played in it.
       Ultimately, the narrator suggests: "My book is a bus that I have carried along a path". Like Wittgenstein's ladder, an actual trip can be inspiring but the facts only serve to get the narrative so far: they're just a starting point, and the author must transcend and shape them to his mind's-eye creation (hence also: "In my beautiful bus, hours go by, days, weeks": the 'trip' is not circumscribed by the actual duration of travel, but rather by how far (and long) it carries his imagination).
       The bus in My Beautiful Bus is, in several senses, a vehicle for the narrator's story, and appropriately the narrative too comes full-circle, the narrator shifting from describing himself as passive observer and passenger to taking the driver's seat and preparing to set off again, this time completely in control. Whether he will manage remains a question Jouet nicely leaves open.
       As Jouet promised/warned, there's more to My Beautiful Bus than immediately meets the eye. Layered in, along with some semiotics, are reference-points that include Pascal's Pensées and Puss in Boots; it's no coincidence, either, that Basile shares a name with the author of the seventeenth-century story-within-stories collection, Il Pentamerone (or Lo cunto de li cunti), Giambattista Basile, which also rates a mention.
       Jouet spins some decent tales in here, but the balance between the increasingly unmoored bus trip and the episodes the characters recount, doesn't really serve either ideally. Readers likely will find they want more of one or the other -- in other words, for the book to commit more to one kind of narrative or the other, rather than the games Jouet plays here. There are many solid elements -- some of these episodes are very nicely recounted -- and some of the metafictional ideas are quite well presented too, but it doesn't quite all come together.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2013

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My Beautiful Bus: Reviews: OuLiPo: Other books by Jacques Jouet under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jacques Jouet was born in 1947 and elected to the Oulipo in 1983.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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