B.S. Johnson: The Unfortunates

I’ve been looking forward to this book all year but not because I knew what it was about.  No, I admit that in this case my anticipation was built up by something that could very well have been a mere gimmick.  B.S. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1973, was an experimental novelist.  Sometimes experiments in literary form are interesting only because they are unique but lack any other quality — in other words, they are experimentation for experimentation sake, and not because the unique form fits the subject and enhances a reader’s experience with that subject.  Worse, experimentation can detract from the subject.  So I was excited about this book, but I was afraid of being let down.  By all accounts, though, Johnson knew what he was doing and garnered comparisons to Joyce and Beckett (though I actually found him to be much clearer).  One of Johnson’s more famous literary experiments was Albert Angelo (1964).  While reading, readers have the opportunity to glance at later passage  in the book since many of the pages have holes cut into them.  I haven’t read it, but reviewers I respect have, and they recommend it.  This fall, New Directions has reissued B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), a book in a box.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

The Unfortunates comes in a box because it is a book with no binding.  The first section and last section are marked, but the 25 sections in between, which range from a paragraph to 12 pages, are meant to be read in any random order the reader chooses.  As we read them, in whatever order, the events coalesce into something congruent.  That’s not entirely unique in today’s world of post-linear narrative.  However, the fact that we the readers have a hand in ordering this randomness — that we get to exercise, and thus witness, arbitrary whims — does have an effect on our reading.

But still, here is the question I had upon approaching the book: Does the form become the subject, or does the form illuminate the subject?  Johnson’s intent in experimenting with form was to mimic the randomness of memory.  One bit of the past may pop up at one moment.  In the next moment, any other can pop up in its place.  Though random and arbitrary, the order in which memories pop up can have an effect on the way we remember something.

But the form here isn’t perfectly fit to convey the intended feeling.  After all, if my mind is randomly retrieving memories while I walk around a city full of associations with my past, each discreet memory is still laden with the weight of all of the memories collectively, even those I’m not conscious of at the moment.  But while we read these memories in random order, we don’t have the benefit of the whole until the end.  So the first time we come across, say, Wendy, she’s completely new to us, and we do not know her relationship with the narrator.  The way we’ve been taught to read books leads us to make assumptions and await further revelations, but that first passage of Wendy is completely unburdened by any even that came before or after the one we are reading.  I don’t know how one could accurately mimic this in writing because, at least sentence by sentence, writing is linear when read even if the narrative is nonlinear.

Here the overlying narrative is simple.  The narrator (Johnson himself) is a disenchanted (if he ever was enchanted) sportswriter.  His latest assignment is to cover the City vs. United match in a city he hasn’t visited in a long time.  Upon arriving he finds himself haunted by painful memories associated with the place.  In particular, he remembers his friend Tony’s death from cancer.  As we read, we might read first the touching short section wherein Tony dies, or perhaps the one just before Tony’s death when the narrator is standing by Tony’s bedside rushing a bit because his car is running and waiting for him outside (his life will go on).  Or we might read first about a moment of hope, either the one when the doctors thought they had removed the cancer, or this one where we learn that before treatment, they hoped the lump would just go away:

But it did not, had gone on growing, when he eventually went to another doctor it was a month later, in Chester, he had been so busy and tired out with looking for somewhere for them all to live, he was in digs himself: and it had grown larger, rapidly, and this doctor, the new one, knew bloody well what it was, at once, was astonished that it had grown so quickly, sent him to hospital at once, they too had never, he said, known a tumour to grow so fast, and I clinically noted that yet again everything to do with him he believed to be the biggest, the most important, unique.  And he ended tritely, with a warning, saying if ever I myself had a lump, which grew, or any lump, to go to a doctor straight away, not worry about overworking him, and not to hope, not to imagine it would go away of its own accord, for speed is of the essence, he said, the cliché, even a few hours, apparently, and it might be too late.

The arrangement of words in that passage deserves a post all on its own.  Johnson’s abundant use of commas would be annoying in someone less skilled, but look how he uses them to interrupt us, forcing us to interpret what he’s written before he adds a new dimension by continuing the sentence.  There’s the part, “And he ended tritely,” which, when I hit that comma, I took to mean that his death was trite.  I believe Johnson intended the reader to think that, if just for a moment, though we see that phrase was really leading to this: Tony ended the conversation with a trite instruction and a trite cliché.  There is also the “and not to hope,” which, set off by commas and then iterrupted from its flow by “not to imagine,” takes on a deeper meaning that “not to hope . . . it would go away of its own accord.”  It is on the local sentence level that Johnson really succeeds in mimicing the multifaceted randomness and revisioning of remembering.

The-Unfortunates-(box)

That’s not to say that the book’s global form — the random sections — is ineffective.  On the contrary, I think it was ingenious.  It’s just that it’s more like we have stumbled onto an assortment of painful ruminations randomly ordered in a box.  But it is also more than that.  One reason this randomness works is because it mimics the randomness of emotion.  At one time the narrator can be happily recalling times before Tony was diagnosed with cancer, a time when Tony and his wife and the narrator and his girlfriend were young and banking on the future.  The next moment can be melancholy.  The next cynical.  The next acerbic.

However, there is a deeper, subversive current in this book on life and death where the experiment with the global form really hits the mark.  The randomness enhances some underlying premises the narrator fully believes in: life is random, death is arbitrary, and both life and death through the passage of time are meaningless.  And whatever the case, life and death definitely are not ordered.  This worldview pervades the entire book, every section, every memory, every activity the narrator engages in.  Giving the reader a hand in this arbitrariness also invites us to consider meaninglessness.  One of my favorite sections in the book is the one where the narrator is composing his article on the incredibly dull City vs. United soccer game.  As he composes and revises he constantly wonders if the way he arranges the words even matters, if the way he organizes the story matters, if the story itself even matters.  Of course it doesn’t.

As a final coda to this review, I would like to disclose the final lines in the book.  It is not a spoiler, but I think they showcase some of Johnson’s fine skill in arrangement (so strange to find such well executed organization in a “random” book).  There are multiple ways to interpret this sentence because of the commas and the various ways we can rearrange the phrases with the other parts of the sentence, which is perfectly acceptable when the commas supposedly set-off non-restrictive phrases.  But, more importantly perhaps, this sentence showcases the variety of tone and the depth of emotion that this book carries because of the multiple possible interpretations based on association.

Not how he died, not what he died of, even less why he died, are of concern, to me, only the fact that he did die, he is dead, is important: the loss to me, to us.

15 thoughts on “B.S. Johnson: The Unfortunates

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Fascinating! It’s on my wishlist, but I’m going to finish reading If On A Winter’s Night first…

  2. PaulSaxton says:

    Good review. And I’m pleased you focused a bit on Johnson’s skills as a writer – so often his brilliance with words gets lost with the attention paid to what his detractors (of which there were many) referred to as gimmicks. Interesting also that you reflected on the nature of memory: Johnson himself was well aware that the book didn’t completely match it but resigned himself to it being the closest approximation he could reasonably create.

    I love all of Johnson’s writings and consider him to be a genuine literary hero. Oh, if there were only more around like him – writers who are prepared to do something different and put themselves out there. Albert Angelo is my favourite. And if you can find a copy I’d also recommend his collection of short pieces, Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? Oh, and Jonathan Coe’s biography of Johnson is just masterful.

  3. PaulSaxton says:

    Johnson was also an interesting filmmaker. This, Fat Man On a Beach, was made just before he killed himself. It’s a great little film:

  4. Trevor says:

    Hi Paul, sorry it took me so long to respond! Thanks for your comments about Johnson. Before reading this, I knew next to nothing about him, but now I really want to get to know his work — particularly Albert Angelo. Also, thanks for the link! I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m on my way to do that just now!

  5. Fascinating’s the word. I had no interest in this, and now I do.

    I wonder to what extent he was influenced by William Burrough’s experiments with cut-up techniques.

    Anyway, I loved your analyis, particularly how you bring out how the physical structure reflects the book’s themes (Catch-22 does this, less ambitiously, with its chapter structure which reflect Yossarian’s psychological crisis interestingly). It’s useful to hear how that structure relates to those themes, and why it’s not mere gimmick.

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    I weakened! Yes, I’m supposed to be buying Xmas presents for other people not for me, but your post kept resonating and in the end I ordered it – and it arrived tonight.
    I can’t decide what to do. Shall I read it in the random order as sent, or rearrange it into a new random order? Shall I skulk around on the net for some guidance about what order seems best? I keep picking up the set of sections, still held together by their red wrapper, and fidgeting with the package. It’s such nice paper too, and the box is gorgeous.
    What fun!
    Lisa

  7. Found it! I’d lost my note of this one. I’ve placed an order today Trevor, so thanks again for bringing it to my attention.

  8. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve read it at last! And not having looked at your blog post till I needed the URL to thank you for bringing this book to my attention, I find I have also concluded my post by quoting the last lines. For some reason, they remind me of John Donne. http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/the-unfortunates-by-b-s-johnson-2/
    Lisa

  9. Trevor says:

    Hi Lisa, I’m so glad you read and enjoyed this book. I still think about it often. It still sits in my mind as one of the rare books that experiments with form and gets it right.

  10. Trevor says:

    Also, I see you mistaken my location with that of the great Kevin from Canada. I do most of my reading and blogging somewhere between New Jersey where I live and New York where I work :)

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