The Unfortunates by B.S.Johnson

INDEPENDENT                               16 October 1999

(Picador £18.00)

In the first section of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, an unnamed narrator arrives at a similarly unnamed Midlands city in order to report on a football match. As he leaves the train, he suddenly recalls the ravaged face of a cancer-ridden friend, frozen in a Bacon-like scream. As he walks the streets, killing time before the game and reliving memories of Tony, he wonders how to make sense of his friend: ‘how can I place his order, his disintegration?’

With the second section of the novel, it is impossible to be authoritative – not because the writing is obscure but because The Unfortunates is composed of twenty-seven separate sections, only the first and last of which are so marked. The remaining twenty-five – which depict various meetings between the friends, an uneventful football match, and the horrors of Tony’s final illness – can be read in any sequence. Of the narrator’s original scheme, the emphasis has clearly been put on disintegration.

Johnson, a fervid believer in fictional experiment, wrote seven novels before committing suicide at the age of forty in 1973. His reputation has subsequently suffered an eclipse. Anyone, however, who turns to The Unfortunates in the hope of discovering a lost masterpiece will be disappointed. Of course, form can never be divorced from content but, without the superficial glamour of its unusual lay-out, it is doubtful that the book would have found a publisher in 1969, let alone have been republished now. In truth, Johnson is less a novelist – neglected or otherwise – than an anti-novelist who, in an extraordinarily perverse credo, declared that there was no place for invention in a novel and that novelists should rather mine the material of their own lives.

To any reader – let alone, writer – of novels, the dichotomy that Johnson creates between fiction and truth is sheer nonsense. Moreover, on this showing, Johnson’s life was simply not interesting enough to engage the reader. In an eloquent introduction, Jonathan Coe identifies Johnson’s friend as Tony Tillinghast, an academic whom he had first met when they were both involved with student journalism. Tillinghast died at the early age of twenty-nine and, in the novel, the narrator promises to bear witness: ‘and I said, it was all I had, what else could I do, I said, I’ll get it all down, mate’. In fact, he manages to convey very little of Tony’s attraction – not his intelligence or charm or beliefs or humour. Tony remains almost as shadowy as the other three figures in the book: two wives and a treacherous girlfriend. Even the narrator, apart from his movingly understated fury at his friend’s death, remains a cipher with no inner life.

The arbitrary is one of the most difficult concepts to convey in art. In the theatre, Alan Ayckbourn has experimented with sequences of scenes determined by the toss of a coin or an actor’s decision to smoke a cigarette. Such moments have, however, seemed largely extraneous to the meaning of the play and to the audience’s enjoyment of its comedy. Here, the form is more directly wedded to Johnson’s purpose, being an expression of the random workings both of the human mind and of the universe – an idea which would not have come as any sort of revelation to readers of Johnson’s generation.

Even in a random universe, individuals give greater or lesser significance to the events of their lives and writers to those of their stories. The problem here is that, cut adrift from narrative, the incidents which Johnson describes lose their impact. They lack resonance and become inconsequential. A meal in a provincial restaurant or a phone-call to a newspaper copy-taker carries exactly the same weight as the discovery of Tony’s cancer. So, the experiment proves to be empty, and the Emperor is revealed as wearing, at most, a small posing-pouch.