Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Unfortunates

I finished reading The Unfortunates, B. S. Johnson's unbound experimental novel, and in doing so, finished an amazing reading experience. The novel follows the narrator in a quasi-familiar city on a hack sports writing assignment. Soon after arriving in the city, he realizes it's familiar because he's been there before, only in the context of his friend Tony, who died of cancer. The primary action of the novel is the narrator's attempt to write the assigned article and to remember Tony.

The chapters in the novel are unbound and, with the exception of the first and the last, can be read in any order. This format looks radically experimental, but given that the primary action is memory, this format is far more accurate in terms of how memory is experienced than anything rigidly linear. Memory rarely maintains chronology. We compress multiple events into singular events, stretch singular events into multiple events, shuffle the order of events, and forget them completely. Traditional narrative is the least accurate representation of memory. So, not only does Johnson's unbound organization challenge the physical definition of a "book" or a "novel," it also mimics the fundamental action of the book. This problem of memory is reinforced as, over and over again, the narrator revises the events, questions his memory of the events, and deduces forgotten memories rationally from subsequent sequences.

Without a linear narrative, many traditional storytelling techniques aren't available. Johnson can't foreshadow anything. His narrator can't progress. There can be no chapter to chapter set ups and payoffs. There can be no mysteries in the plot and no accumulative thematic explorations. However, the random order that I read the chapters in still felt natural. At one point I thought to myself that a particular theme was set up very well, when that wasn't the case at all. The individual chapters are so well written and so thematically cohesive that details can function as both set-ups and pay-offs or as the introduction of a theme and the elaboration of a theme. The word-for-word writing skill necessary to pull off such hyper-cohesion is dazzling.

Along with that cohesion the novel displays a breathtaking universality. It's accurate to say that The Unfortunates is about memory or about cancer, but as the narrator remembers and observes, the story manages to be about everything else as well. When the narrator describes the state of the soccer stadium, he is also describing the destructive greed pervasive in professional sports. When the narrator grumbles about the popular newspaper reporters, he is also grumbling about media's willingness to pander to the public. When he struggles to write his article about the boring soccer match, he shows the struggle everyone goes through when doing a job they don't love. And in his hands cancer not only becomes the disease devouring his friend, but also the affliction that defines modern society; the slightly altered body, destroying itself.

This new edition presents as accurately as possible Johnson's vision for the novel, with epigraphs from Lawrence Sterne and Samuel Beckett on the inside of the box. The introduction by Jonathan Coe sets the book in its historical context, while providing the reader with a structure for interpretation. The box even includes a copy of the article that brought Johnson to the city in the first place. The Unfortunates is literature at its best with the experimentation driven by the author's attempt to more accurately portray the complexities of human life in words. Johnson has earned himself a place among the English language's great modern writers for creating it.

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