Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Unfortunates Back in Print

Two years ago, Dale, one of our buyers handed me a comp copy of Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe's brilliant literary biography of B. S. Johnson and it has been a frustrating two years since then. Coe's book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and stands as one of the great writer biographies I've read. As a result I wanted to rush out and get all the B. S. Johnson I could. Coe explains his reasons for writing the book in this interview. Unfortunately for me, and nearly everyone else who read the biography, most of Johnson's work was out of print.

B. S. Johnson was an avant-garde British novelist in the late 60s who sought to continue the linguistic projects of Joyce and Beckett, pushing the English language novel further along. Every time he seemed about to break into the mainstream with an innovative work, the reading public refused to follow where he tried to lead them, and as a result he fell into obscurity.

I eventually read Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, Johnson's darkly comic story of a "simple man" who decides to keep a strict account of debits and credits with the world, determined to pay back the world in kind for any deductions from his happiness. The result is an act of mass terrorism, but along the way Johnson dazzles with subtlety, clever meta-fiction, and thrilling diction. On one page, two characters exchange insults, passing the words "trituration," "helminthoid," and "cryptorchid," before reaching an "eirenicon." Along the way Johnson's novel predates the office comedy by perfectly capturing the sense of spending one's time in busy work. "At eleven or thereabouts Christie was told by Wagner to go over to Wages Section and fill a void there for the rest of the day." And along with the wordplay, the humor, and the experimentation, it has some of the best word-for-word writing I've ever read.

I nearly danced when I saw a copy of The Unfortunates at the bookstore. The Unfortunates is Johnson's infamous "book in a box." All of the chapters are bound separately and, with the exception of the first chapter and the last chapter, can be read in any order. Developments in printing technology, Coe's biography, and perhaps the literary advances of subsequent writer's in terms of the format of the novel (I'm thinking specifically of Mark Z. Danielewski
and Steven Hall, but writers like J. M. Coetzee, David Foster Wallace, and others probably helped too.) have paved the way for The Unfortunates to come back into print and to leap to the top of my reading pile.

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