May 2012
Tom McCarthy

On Dodgem Jockeys

The Most Noble and Heroic Thing to Be in Life

Discussed: A Suggested Alternative Career for Writers, The Frequency of Empty Buses, Speaking Cartesianly, Angry Lighting, The Realms of Conductivity and Conveyance, The Stranger Lodged within the Home, Walter Benjamin’s Angel

In one of his short pieces that hovers uncomfortably between being a novel, an essay, and an exercise in clinical observation, Georges Perec muses that he’s missed his true calling: rather than a writer, he should have become a controller for the Paris City Transit Authority. The revelation comes at the end of a day spent sitting in the same spot noting down (among other things) the passage of pedestrians to and from the metro and the frequency with which the variously numbered buses pass by, some full, some empty. But, more subtly, his reasoning goes as follows: if the writer’s task is to record events in time; to bring into sharp focus the trajectories of human lives, both singularly and in all their crowded multiplicity, the contingencies—be these of chance or design—of a hundred, or a thousand, or a million comings-together, transfers, and leave-takings; to intuit and communicate their overall rhythm; and, beyond even that, to peer beneath their surface and reveal the fabric holding the whole thing together, unpick and reconstruct its very weft and warp—well, the transit controller does exactly this.

By the same logic, I would suggest that the most noble and heroic thing to be in this life, or perhaps in any other, is the dodgem jockey. You know what I mean: those guys who work the bumper cars in fairgrounds. Not the fat, older one who sits in the control booth—Perec’s fantasy—but the lithe young things who cling to the backs of moving cars, hopping from one to the next.

  1. Editor’s note: In Britain, bumper cars are also known as dodgems. The two or three fairground employees who move between cars, riding their rear bumpers for short stretches, reaching down to take over the wheel when, for example, several cars have become wedged together, are a perennial fixture of the dodgem ring.

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Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. His books include Men in Space, C, Remainder, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, and the forthcoming Transmission and the Individual Remix.

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