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I Get on the Bus Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Building on some of the territory identified by the author in his first work of fiction, the prize-winning collection of stories Moustapha’s Eclipse (1988), and on his experiences as a teacher in West Africa, I Get on the Bus is a compelling meditation on the state of blackness in the closing years of the twentieth century. Given the novel’s background and the innumerable manifestations of Senegalese life, culture, language, and environment that it contains, it is tempting to regard the work in an autobiographical light. Although the work itself does not intentionally dismiss such an approach, its use of a first-person narrator paradoxically makes that approach unsustainable, since by virtue of the terms of reference of his narrative, the protagonist becomes a representative and problematic case and not a distinct, ego-centered “I.” Evan Norris is a condition rather than a person; or rather, because of the type of person he is, he becomes a condition.

That condition issues from the involvement of Evan’s perceptive and alert intelligence with a culture that is articulated in unfamiliar and unassimilable terms. Evan’s intelligence, the critical character of which has been honed by his education, speaks essentially of the individual’s autonomy. His decision to leave the United States and a complicated but potentially rewarding situation with his girlfriend, Wanda Wright, confirms his individuality and autonomy. His individuality leads Evan to reject his position with the Peace Corps. It is not clear, however, that he rejects the Peace Corps as such, since to do so would place him in an analytical mode and thus undermine the peculiar forms of impotence that color his Senegal experience.

By resigning his Peace Corps position, Evan in effect submits to a different order of experience, one that produces visceral rather than cerebral reactions. One of the ways in which he progresses through the world of the novel is by recounting a range of physical symptoms, most revealingly intense pains in his head. This order of experience intensifies some of the feelings of disorientation from which he has suffered, both in the United States and as a teacher supposedly identifying with a benevolent mission. This intensification is expressed in ways over which Evan has no control and which are manipulated, for their own inscrutable purposes, by the various other characters with whom he becomes involved.

The forms of expression that make Senegalese experience distinct and impossible for Evan to fathom appeal to areas of himself with which he has little experience. His Senegalese world is one of spirits, some of which are disembodied forces while others are what might be termed reembodied. The reality and force of these unhuman entities, and of the means whereby they attain human agency, is undoubted by all but Evan. Understandably, he is at a loss to know what to make of the jinni and the demms who evidently hold his existence in thrall. It is this condition and his lack of command over it that constitute the disjointed but ultimately overwhelming plot line of I Get on the Bus.

The obscure maneuvering of the plot, with a problematic basis in various versions and interpretations of events that predate Evan’s arrival in Senegal and in the painful physical and hallucinatory mental state to which he succumbs while there, seems ultimately to demonstrate how Evan, although ostensibly in a state of transition, is a prisoner with three options. The first and most compelling of these is represented by the joint forces of Aminata Gueye, his Senegalese girlfriend, and Lamont Samb, her fiancé. Were Evan to align himself with their forces, he would of necessity become the enemy of Africa Ford. Africa, however, represents...

(The entire section is 908 words.)