After enjoying Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson, I got a copy of his The Unfortunates. I'd heard about this one years and years ago, but at the time it was out of print and not cheap. By the time it came back into print I failed to notice. My original interest in the book was it's unusual format: it's a box of 27 unbound sections (plus, in this edition a 1 section introduction) of between 1 and about 10 pages each. There are sections labelled "First" and "Last" but otherwise they are meant to be read in any order. This is reminiscent of a book I have previously read Marc Saporta's Composition No.1 (link to my review of it) which is a novel as a book of unbound single pages.
Johnson's novel is much more coherent than Saporta's this is more stream of consciousness autofiction than nouveau roman. The novel starts out with the narrator (a Johnson stand-in) arriving in Manchester (well I read it as Manchester because of the team names) to cover a football (soccer, this is in England) game. Arriving in the city he recalls his previous visits there to see his friend Tony, who has since died of cancer. The sections then cover disorganized memories of their friendship and, primarily, Tony's illness. While the timeline of the plot is met out of order (via the shuffled sections), I believe it would be possible to order the sections so as to progress through plot sequentially. The narrator's visits around town (grocery, bar, restaurant, the game, the train home) and the progress of Tony's life and illness all have an ordering that is evident as one reads, allowing one to fit together where a particular section fits in the timeline fairly early into starting it.
Reading the introduction by Jonathan Coe (who wrote the biography of Johnson), you learn that Johnson was focused on truth in his writing and in that respect this novel is both successful and powerful. In discussing his friend's illness and associated events such as a girlfriend named Wendy who he says "betrayed" him in an unspecific way and whom he continues to hold mixed feelings for years later, Johnson (or his stand-in) do not hide thoughts and feelings that I think are less than admirable. His continuing harping on Wendy's betrayal for one, but also the ways he didn't want to deal with his friend's illness or how he was hurt when because of the illness Tony couldn't make it to Johnson's book release party, or when Tony, very ill at that point, seems uninterested in Johnson's subsequent novel. In this way the book shows the selfishness in human feelings even as it also exposes the pain in losing a loved one and the confusion in wondering a the point of a life lost at a fairly young age, all the time Tony spent getting his degrees and working his way to teaching only to then get sick and die.
I found it a very moving read. It moved along quick too, pulling out one little section after another, almost like a box of tiny zines. Johnson writes with very long sentences, one clause after another, line after line, but I think the shortness of the sections helps work against those long sentences becoming overwhelming or tedious, psychologically you can always see where there will be a break (unlike that one Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel where I started being more interested in just how many pages a sentences lasted than in what the sentence actually said).
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