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.
Considered structurally (and what is a fairground ride but a mechanical construction?), the dodgem ring is made up of three strata. At the top, the grid—that is, speaking Cartesianly, space itself, its sublimated essence and totality; and, speaking metaphysically, the heavens, electrified domain from which the gods cast out their bolts, zap life down to the realm below. That second realm, the floor, the stage across which human dramas play themselves out with a predictable, if frenzied and excited, regularity, is, despite its foot-stamping, wheel-grabbing aspirations to autonomy, powered by the first, which crackles from time to time with angry lightning to remind it where the charge lies in this setup.
Dodgem jockeys, though, occupy the third stratum, the one lying between the other two: the realm of conductivity, of conveyance. This makes them angels: messengers, or mediators, who ensure that heaven’s work is carried out uninterruptedly on earth, nudging things along, sorting out blockages. In terms of volume, their zone is the biggest: where the ceiling, like the floor, is flat (even the gods are horizontal), it alone has a vertical dimension. While their nominal “patrons” are obliged to sit for the duration of the ride, they stand tall, towering, erect. Like erotic dancers swinging round their poles, these men are the stars of the show, and they know it. Each ride is a performance, a ballet whose choreography is made all the more exquisite by the casual way in which it’s executed: glissades disguised as offhand sidesteps between moving vehicles, coupés as distracted shifts of weight from one foot to the other. They have mastered laws of motion not found elsewhere: dodgem cars make no distinction between forward, neutral, and reverse, but submit rather to an endless coiling of the wheel through which every direction flows out of its opposite. A quantum field, vertiginous, abyssal, in whose depths these agents of relativity hover, paradoxically enabling movement to proceed along axes and vectors postulated by old, naive laws of physics from which they themselves have long since been exempted.
The dodgem jockey, clinging uninvited to your car—your one, the one you’ve paid, downpaid for—represents the figure of the stranger lodged within the home. He’s the Unheimliche, the Uncanny, stuck onto you like an incubus. What better image for the gypsy in the popular imagination, its fantasies and fears? Within the fairground, this rickety, nomadic mobile city brought to you on trucks, the bumper-car ride, mise-en-scène of rickety mobility, sits like a miniature reproduction of the whole. These men, then, restlessly moving between moving cars, replicate yet again the overall condition of nomadism: a regressiveness that partakes of infinity. Through such endless repetitions, they both multiply and merge with other quasi-folkloric characters who populate the margins of our consciousness: cowboys, for example, hired hands exhorting mutinous, anarchic herds to follow a course that, if no two of its individual paths are identical, nonetheless amalgamates to a coherent whole; or logjammers, riding the very masses they prod and corral, skipping between these as they bump and roll, teasing equilibrium from the rim of chaos; or linesmen dangling from pylons as sparks leap into the air around their heads, whispering into their ears (and only theirs) the static, white-noise secrets of the firmament.
In Paul Klee’s famous painting of (and here we loop back, like a dodgem, to an earlier motif) a hovering angel, Walter Benjamin discerns not just any angel: this one, he tells us, is the angel of history, who travels one way while facing the other, backward. Where mortals perceive a chain of separate events that amount to “progress,” the angel sees one single, ongoing catastrophe that piles wreckage upon wreckage, hurling it before his feet. Are dodgem jockeys angels of history, too? I would say: yes, they are. They’ve seen it all before: these circuits blurring into one, these endless crashes, disasters playing out as pleasure, roar of the generator merging with screams of girls, bellows of boys who hope to get into their pants later that night, when the ride’s over, generate more generations, send more wreckage the angel’s way… They’ve seen the entire tapestry, its pattern. Free-floating witnesses, they were there: at your conception, and the universe’s, when circulating atoms deviated and collided.
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.