Magazine article The Spectator

A Random Harvest

Magazine article The Spectator

A Random Harvest

Article excerpt

THE UNFORTUNATES

by B.S. Johnson

Picador, 18

Back in his late Sixties heyday B. S. Johnson was, if not exactly a household name, then a figure of some consequence in any analysis of what were then called 'developments' in the novel. Of all that tribe of spiky experimentalists who clogged up space in the review pages of 30 years ago - Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Ann Quinn and others - he was the spikiest of all. Tortured syntax, streams of consciousness, holes cut into the paper to enable fast-forwarding, single letters chucked randomly about the page (a feature of his 1971 novel, House Mother Normal) - all this and more distinguished the oeuvre of a novelist who regarded linear narrative as a kind of artistic fraud perpetrated on life.

To disdain for the conventional contemporary novel - and by extension most conventional contemporary novelists - could be added an abrasive personal manner. Nearly any sixty-something English literatteur will have a pained memory or two of Johnson disrupting, as it might be, a meeting of the Society of Authors, or hectoring some TV discussion group. An anecdote told me by A. S. Byatt illustrates the kind of man Johnson was. It was in 1967 and Byatt had just published her second novel, The Game. It was generally well received. A week or so after the reviews had appeared, Johnson telephoned her to say that he'd read the book and concluded that it (and she) offered `no competition'.

Before his death, by suicide, in 1973 Johnson wrote nine novels. The Unfortunates, whose reissue marks the start of a full-scale attempt at a Johnson revival, was perhaps the most notorious. Marketed in a box consisting of 27 individually printed sections, it can, with the exception of the opening and closing fragment, be read in any order that the reader likes. There is no 'plot' as such, simply a series of ruminations on the author's dead friend, an academic named Tony, a failed love affair with a girl called Wendy and the task on which the author is currently engaged - travelling to Nottingham on a Saturday afternoon to report on a soccer match for the Observer.

What did Johnson think he was doing? In his excellent introduction - offered as a discrete 28th section - his biographer Jonathan Coe soon fastens on Johnson's particular aesthetic motor. Obsessed by the demands of 'truth', he aimed to find a form that would convey the mind's randomness. One aspect of this quest was a rather ominous (ominous for anyone who likes `ordinary' fiction, that is) particularity: `In general, generalisation is to lie, to tell lies' runs a sentence towards the end of the book. …

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