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By dismantling sequential structure in The Unfortunates, B. S. Johnson broke with more conventions than Joyce or Sterne
The Unfortunates (1969) by B. S. Johnson
A chance encounter in a secondhand book shop in London introduced me to the work of B. S. Johnson twenty years ago. I was shuffling through the dusty tomes when I came across a guide to modern literature, crammed with glossy facsimiles of book covers, interviews, and essays. One image in particular caught my eye. A box, with papers streaming out of it, with a blurry scientific image on the cover. I devoured the short text about the author – “evacuee; author of Travelling People, House Mother Normal; poetry editor of Transatlantic Review; film and television director; praised by Beckett; committed suicide in 1973”, and was intrigued. Nothing of his was in print so I used a book finder service and eventually a copy of the legendary “book in a box” The Unfortunates arrived.
Johnson set himself the challenge of representing the random workings of the mind within the enforced consecutiveness of a bound book, which in its very manufacture dictated a structure – the binding imposing an order, fixing the page, the word. The Unfortunates is a unique object – 27 loose-leaf sections, temporarily held together with a removable wrapper with only the first and last sections specified. The remaining 25 passages could be shuffled into any order one wished, a “physical tangible metaphor” for the random workings of the mind.
A chance invitation to Nottingham as a newspaper reporter for a football match had reminded Johnson of Tony, a friend who had lived in the city and who had died of cancer two years earlier. Wanting to capture the essence of his living presence and pointless death led him to the dilemma of how to construct such a piece of writing. The problem for Johnson was the randomness of the material: past and present interweaving with no chronology. As far as possible he attempted to make the novel into an eight-hour transcription of that Saturday afternoon as he pondered his friend’s death. (A newspaper cutting of his match report, headed “Sub inspires City triumph”, is also stuck in the box.)
Johnson was a remarkable writer who resisted the natural conservatism of the British literary establishment. He wanted to force readers to question the form, often interrupting the narrative to alert the reader to the fact that what they were reading was “all lies, damned lies”, that you were engaged in a form of literary seduction, that the convention could only go so far. Addressing the reader directly in 1971’s House Mother Normal (see Eye no. 30 vol. 8), the lead character states: “And here you see, friends, I am about to step outside the convention, the framework . . . Thus you see I too am the puppet or concoction of a writer (you always knew there was a writer behind it all? Ah there’s no fooling you readers!).”
European literature had already been exploring new avenues of expression with the potent works of Stein, Joyce and Woolf in the earlier part of the century, followed more recently by the Oulipo group (Harry Matthews, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino et al), Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and others who were attempting to break the form within the bound structure of the physical novel. Johnson was attempting to take his work one stage further.
Johnson pre-empted our notion of cross discipline between the arts by not only being a prolific writer and editor but also a director and producer of films for television. You’re Human Like the Rest of Them won the Grand Prix at two international film festivals in 1968 and fuelled by his almost arbitrary approach to narrative: works such as Fat Man on a Beach (1973) for Welsh Television span between the comic with its English vulgarity and Carry On humour and a moving deconstructive examination of content and meaning. Filmed larking about on a beach in Wales, where he placed his first novel Travelling People, Johnson playfully reveals the “truth” behind the editing and production of such a television appearance with his constant asides to the camera and quips to the viewer, revealing the human condition as fragile and temporal, where “some things can only be said indirectly. One can only reflect the truth of what they were.”
B. S. Johnson’s work, particularly The Unfortunates (now re-issued by Picador, with an introduction by novelist Jonathan Coe), enhances the fragility of the “real”. For me, as a sound artist, it acted as inspiration to leave the formal structures of rhythm, melody and composition behind and seek solutions in new methods of explication and exploration, wherever they may lie.
First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 9, 2000