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The Unfortunates Hardcover – Box set, November 17, 2009
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An interesting, strange bookall the stranger...that it's nearly 40 years old and feels fresh as last Tuesday. (Corduroy Books, B.S. Johnson)
Work of great pathos...this book deserves a place in the history of memoir, and in anthologies about illness. (The New York Sun, Benjamin Lytal)
Work of great pathos...this book deserves a place in the history of memoir, and in anthologies about illness.
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And then B. S. Johnson, the author of The Unfortunates, dropped this bomb on me in the second to last paragraph:
"The difficulty is to understand without generalization, to see each piece of received truth, or generalization, as true only if it is true for me, solipsism again, I come back to it again, and for no other reason. In general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies."
That really puts a cramp in any attempt at review, since to review is to generalize, don't you think? And, hey, isn't Johnson generalizing by saying that generalizations are lies?
So, give me a second. Let me take a few sips of my tea, look over my notes one more time, and take a deep breath. Allow me a minute to gather my thoughts and come back to this experimental and provocative text, because my head is beginning to hurt in that way it does after reading post-modernism.
Firstly, there is not enough room on this coffee shop table for the book, my computer, my notes, and the five highlighters it took to organize my thoughts into a rainbowed outline.
The act of reading this book is incredibly tactile. You hold the individual chapters in your hand to read, people passing stare at the thin pamphlets, the man next to me looks up every time I put one section to the left and pick up the next on the right. It's an attention grabber with its box cover, its 1-12 page sections, and its gift-like presentation. I opened it for the first time and felt the need to take pictures of it like I did ten years ago when I got my first iPod.
This book is beautiful.
It consists of twenty-seven chapters that are separately bound. The first and last are marked and in place at the top and bottom of the pile of chapters, but the remaining twenty-five arrive in random order. In his note to the reader, Johnson encourages him to choose: read the chapters in the order in which they arrive or rearrange them before beginning. When I began reading I was sitting across from The Canadian in a bookstore. She was struggling with formatting her novel, and I was struggling with a novel that defied formatting.
"How do you think I should read it?" I asked.
"What?" She looked up. She looked frantic and frustrated.
"The sections. Do you think I should read them as they came to me, or do you think I should mix them up?"
"Oh." She rested her chin in her hand and seemed for the first time in hours to be distracted from her task. "I would read it in the order I received it."
"Because I would like to think that I received the book in the order I was supposed to read it."
This is why I love her.
In the first chapter Johnson arrives in Nottingham to report on a football game. He thinks he is traveling to a town that he has never been to before but, setting food on solid ground, is aware that he has spent a good deal of time in this town. In fact, he spent most of that time with his friend and colleague, Tony, who died some time ago from cancer. And so begin the twenty-five randomly arranged chapters that alternate between the present and the past, between Johnson's day in Nottingham and his memories of Tony.
(I should mention here that the "novel" is entirely autobiographical. Johnson was very vocal in his belief that fiction should be true. Any novel that wasn't absolutely true, in his opinion, was a lie, and truth could not be conveyed with lies. "How can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction?" he asked. "The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically be impossible." Of course many (if not most) literary critics and creatives would disagree and argue that "truth" is too subtle to be achieved through the use of literal language and historical details. I think Tim O'Brien said it best: "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." In the end, Johnson's insistence on absolute truth proved to be too restrictive: "Johnson's theory, in effect a breathtaking insistence that all literature should reduce itself to the status of glorified memoir, eventually proved too much of a straightjacket: by the time of his last, posthumously published novel, See The Old Lady Decently, he was reaching further and further back into his family history, and the result has an air of strain and imprecision, weariness even" [from the introduction by Jonathan Coe].)
In the end I appreciated the order in which I received the book. Somewhat divinely, my arrangement of chapters ended with the final exchange between Tony and Johnson:
"...the last thing I said to him, all I had to give him, alone with him, with my coat on, about to go, the car waiting outside to run us to the station, staring down at him, facing those eyes, he staring back all the time now, it must have been a great effort for him, yes, and I said, it was all I had, what else could I do, I said, I'll get it all down, mate. It'll be very little, he said, after a while, slowly, still those eyes. That's all anyone has done, very little, I said."
So how does one review a book that makes the argument that it is the sole truth of its author and therefore cannot be questioned, criticized, or challenged? Should I play into Johnson's philosophy or push against it? If you'll allow me, I think I'll do both.
The book, while literally about death, loss, and creativity, concerns itself predominantly with the accidental and persistent nature of memory. If the writing style suggests it (the run-on sentences, the spaces on the page where the speaker's thought process is interrupted, and the lines that end mid-sentence), then the form enforces it. You can't help but read it randomly, the memories coming without provocation, occurring as arbitrarily as the order in which you receive the book.
I should be honest: I had ulterior motives for this review after having read very little of the book. I wanted this review to be a discussion about truth and memory (selfishly: they're my favorite literary themes [aside, of course, from sex]). I wanted this review to hotly contest Johnson's perception of memory with a slew of quotes from van der Kolk and Freud. I wanted this review to be a literary smack down.
After taking a class on narratives derived from traumatic memory, I felt my chest puff out and my know-it-all-ness preparing to reject Johnson's version of how memory is experienced. After having only read the introduction, I found myself shouting angrily at the text, "But memory isn't random! It is triggered by something in the present, a smell, a taste, a lost memento rediscovered in the attic." Like Proust considering a tea-soaked madeleine, memory occurs when something in the present triggers something in the past. It is not random. It is not accidental.
But then I remembered something. I remembered the night last summer that I spent with The Poet and the fragmented words I wrote the morning after. I drove back to Bread Loaf after leaving him on the side of Route 7 and sat in my twin bed trying desperately to get everything down that I could remember. Maybe, I thought, if I could remember everything from the night before, I could make sense of what had happened. I would know why he kissed me in the middle of the lake, and why he fed me bites of his breakfast sandwich, and why exactly he had begun to pull away on the couch as we listened to the sound of Lake Champlain moving like a tongue against the rocks.
Isn't this what we feel, fundamentally, when we write? We write to make sense of the world. We use the imprecise art of words to describe what cannot otherwise be described.
What I wrote in my bed that day was entirely accidental. The memories came to me randomly. They repeated themselves. They were out of order. Remembering the silence that fell over us at the register while we paid for our lunch (a sandwich that we split) was interrupted by remembering how he had sat facing me on the bed in the morning and rubbed his big toe against mine as if to comfort me with as little contact as possible.
In that moment of remembering my own remembering, my pretense dropped. My know-it-all-ness turned to the humble concession that what has been written and theorized about memory is not necessarily true for everyone. Maybe most memory is triggered by the present, but in the horrible aftermath of his friend's death, Johnson strove to memorialize his friend and to convey the process of his own remembering. The danger of generalization that Johnson warns against in his last lines then is that it leaves no room for the unique (bordering on solipsistic) and enigmatic qualities of human experience.
Just now something wonderful happened. As I was holding the chapters loosely in my hand, trying to leaf through the pages to find the last line of a section I loved, the entire text fell onto the floor. The first chapter slid across the granite tile. Four others flipped upside down. A thin chunk of chapters stayed together, but the rest turned backwards and spun out of the order in which I had read them. As I bent down to gather them up I realized that the book, both palpably and intellectually, resists analysis. This difficulty in criticizing a work that is actively negating and deflecting criticism, it seems, is exactly what Johnson wanted.
(You can read more of my reviews at [...])
The Unfortunates is a boxed series of stories between the first and last chapter. It does not matter how your stories are placed, the story will be the same. I have read The Unfortunates twice, each reading revolving the stories; and in each revolution I received the same conclusion. This is the point of B.S. Johnson’s intention, to take the chronological method away from the norm of reading a novel. He does so remarkably.
In the novel, you follow the narrator who talks about his friend, Tony, a friend dying of cancer. The narrator, a journalist, begins reporting a story about City, a football team in England. You empathize about the misdiagnosis of Tony, because of how the narrator and June, his wife, experience the pain. There is a moment of euphoria for June because the large lump is extracted, and she feels a new beginning. We meet Tony’s family, who doesn’t know he’s sick. Tony and June have a baby, the narrator gets a girlfriend, and a friend commits suicide. B.S. Johnson delivers the daily life of these young people at the beginning of their adult lives, and the deterioration of Tony near the end of his. Upon reflecting Tony’s death, the narrator feels as if the longevity of life between him and Tony may not have been much. The narrator: “Death. Let the dead live with the dead.”
B.S. Johnson’s literary exercise is to show that no matter the order, the beginning and conclusion of his story will remain the same. The Unfortunates is a great novel in respect to literature and its artistic attributes of physical layout. Book Review by Orange Postman Website