Unfortunates’ is as random as the mind

By Steve Coons, Red Pulse Writer

In 1964, B.S. Johnson’s novel Albert Angelo was published with holes cut in the pages, skewing the novel’s chronology by physically altering the traditional structure of the book.

Five years after taking a knife to the pages of Angelo, he introduced it to the binding of his fourth novel, The Unfortunates. The book exists as 27 loose sections presented in a box roughly the size of a trade paperback. The first and last sections are labeled as such, but the other 25 sections are meant to be shuffled. Some of the sections are presented on a single loose page, but others are long enough to be staple-bound. Not surprisingly, the unorthodox novel quickly went out of print, but renewed interest in Johnson8212;springing from Jonathan Coe’s award-winning biography, Like a Fiery Elephant8212;prompted New Directions to bring out a new edition last year.

In Coe’s excellent introduction, he notes that economics prevented The Unfortunates from being published as planned in Hungary. This prompted Johnson to respond in a special introductory note, in which he pleaded for his Hungarian readers to cut the novel into the 27 pieces he had intended and to then place those sections into a suitable receptacle so as not to miss the “physical feel, disintegrative, frail, of this novel in its original format; the tangible metaphor for the random way the mind works.”

But while the subject of the novel might in fact be the randomness of the mind, as Coe and Johnson argue, the subject of Johnson’s mind is the death of Tony Tillinghast, an old friend and literary mentor of Johnson’s who fought cancer for years before dying shortly after the publication of Johnson’s second novel.

The Unfortunates opens with Johnson in Nottingham to cover a soccer match between City and United, wondering why he didn’t think of Tony’s sallow cheeks and shriveled gums when his editor gave him the assignment. Around every corner is another memory of his friend, and yet he approaches the assignment unwittingly. The novel, then, is a stream-of-consciousness account of Johnson’s reminisces throughout his stay. Sometimes the memories are of Tony’s disintegration, sometimes they are of Johnson’s failed relationships, and sometimes he just talks about soccer.

Johnson doesn’t allow the novel to descend too far into sentimentality, though with the shuffling of sections some readers might encounter a painfully concentrated dose of sections detailing Tony’s decline. Johnson came to Nottingham to write about soccer, and his assignment provides a welcome shot of humor, a distraction from Tony’s death and the uneasiness it inspires in Johnson’s egotism.

Johnson writes about soccer for the money, but he is a fan as well. In one section, he stands in front of a row of televisions showing swimming and jumping, writing, “The only sport most people want to watch is soccer, the only real sport, the best, the pathetic ends they go to on Saturday afternoons to cover up the fact that they are not showing football.” He also touches on the dilapidated football arenas built by stingy owners, mocks his dying friend for enjoying cricket, and records the writing of his football column.

Despite the packaging and stream-of-consciousness, the novel is surprisingly conventional. Even taking the shuffling into consideration, it would be difficult to describe the chronology as disorienting. Although his prose is often compared to Beckett’s and his hero is Laurence Sterne, Johnson’s writing is almost entirely comprehensible and to the point. Each section is devoted to a particular memory or string of connected memories, most of which function as traditional narratives, even while composed in Johnson’s non-traditional style. It’s difficult to agree with Johnson’s assertion that the novel is primarily concerned with the randomness of the mind when there are so few diversions, when the randomness of the mind is only accurately presented in physical form.

Two lines from the novel seem to the point, namely, “How I dull myself with architecture,” and “It’s an object, it’s an objective, it will pass the time.”

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