A new review of an old classic: Thomas McGonigle takes a look at B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates ("the British author's experimental novel is made up of sections that can be changed at random so that no two readings are the same).

McGonigle's review begins:

The writer B.S. Johnson was one of a handful of modern authors -- among others, Alan Burns, Ann Quin, Zulfikar Ghose -- who extended the range of the English novel by moving beyond the innovations of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Johnson was trivialized by a ferociously traditional British literary establishment wedded to the conventional realistic novel. He committed suicide in 1973, but thanks to his very loyal readers, his novels continue to be reprinted because they are so deeply human, formally innovative and pay microscopic attention to detail.

Readers Comments

  1. McGonigle is pretty reticent on the content, other than to describe a "deeply moving emotional core." To me The Unfortunates is one of those experimental books where the experiment is pretty much the only interesting thing about it. The first-time reader excitedly thinks, "How is he going to maintain structure when you can shuffle the parts in any order?" The answer is that there is no structure: the content is merely the memories of a reporter at a football match who is remembering his friend who died of cancer, so the thoughts can come willy-nilly - which is lifelike enough I suppose.

    I think Johnson was more interesting in Christy Malry (as McGonigle implies) and even in the more straightforward Albert Angelo and the structurally barmy House Mother Normal - which set the bar for sexual idiosyncracy in fiction by being centred on an act which I can only describe, minting new coin here, as 'canilingus'.

  2. Thomas McGonigle Thursday 21 August 2008

    TM writes: the reason not much about "content" : the simple space limitation. Thought it more important to try to interest people in the thing itself. The Unfortunates would not have been reviewed except that I insisted that it could not be over-looked so editor found a little space... and John Self actually pinpoints the basic genius of BS in this case: by mimicking how the mind actually works... the problem is that once done he takes this form aways from all writers. With the French box and Johnson's box: that's it.

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