Until very recently I had never read any B.S. Johnson. I had a staticky reminiscence of what he might have been, which could be represented, using his own idiosyncratic conventions for marking the lapses that run through our consciousness of the world, as ‘experimental … . suicide … . wrists was it?’
To clear the static first: these reprints are to celebrate what would have been the eightieth birthday of the novelist B.S. Johnson, who died after slitting his wrists at the age of forty on 13 November 1973. He left (as the obituarists say) a wife and two children. Before his death he had published six novels, which were completed in the course of little more than a decade, and had written one more, which was to have been the first part of a trilogy about his mother’s death from cancer. He also left behind a number of plays (many of which were not performed and some of which were unperformable), several TV scripts, an array of polemical essays and some shorter pieces of fiction. Much of this is gathered together, and some of it published for the first time, in Well Done God! He also wrote football match reports for the Observer. In his fiction, drama and film he sought to be both devilishly avant-garde and a popular success. It was a perfect recipe for writerly torment.
Having read Johnson and about him I avoid using the word ‘experimental’ in my static-clearing version of his life, partly out of piety to the dead (‘Experimental’, he said, ‘to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful”’) and partly because that word misses the point of his writing. He was preoccupied with telling the truth, the main characteristic of which, so far as he was concerned, was its opposition to convention. He wanted in his fiction to show things as they are – bodies, pain, cancers, vomits, the gruesomeness of dying, the endless self-indulgence of memory – without letting anybody, least of all himself, escape into the cosy world of what he termed Dickensian fiction. Repeatedly he rebuked other novelists for failing to realise that James Joyce was the ‘Einstein of the novel’ and that the world had to be different after Ulysses. The unpityingness of this project (he is sometimes so savage that it must not always have been pleasant to be in the same room as him, and he is sometimes so self-savaging that it must have been very painful indeed to have been in the same head as him) is leavened by a Beckettian and boyish (usually 16ish) sense of humour. So in Trawl (1966), which is a novel-travelogue about a voyage on a fishing boat designed, he said, ‘to give substantial yet symbolic form to an isolation I have felt most of my life by isolating myself in fact’, and which trawls through his own past, he relates how one of the seamen ‘caught the cook in the galley this morning crimping a meat pie with his false teeth, and asked him if he hadn’t got a proper tool: Yes, said the cook, but that I keep for making holes in doughnuts.’ His prose style owes a deal to Beckett (with whom he played billiards in Paris), as do his grimmer jokes. So a doctor in his version of Woyzeck says to the commanding officer: ‘Sounds as if you’ve got a touch of the human condition, sir.’ His debt to Irish modernism is made literal in an otherwise not particularly successful short story set in Ireland (Johnson’s native terrain was London) called ‘Broad Thoughts from a Home’. This prefixes a description of O’Meara’s Bar in Dublin with a spoof invoice from ‘Kenny and Knight, Fact-finders to Literary Ladies and Gentlemen. Irish Atmosphere Our Speciality’ for ‘the supply of one description of licensed premises, Irish, situate in lowermiddleclass district of Dublin’.
Joyce, he said, freed novelists from ‘the crutch of storytelling’, and freed from that crutch Johnson repeatedly did things with fiction that were both sportive and unexpected. He wrote a novel (The Unfortunates, 1969) which consisted of 27 sections bound as separate pamphlets in a box. One section is labelled ‘First’ and another ‘Last’, but the rest could be read in any sequence. The Unfortunates was not an ‘experiment’ of an Oulipo-esque kind, though Johnson certainly knew about Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a loose-leafed novel whose pages could be read in any order. Johnson’s experiments were always driven by a desire to make form follow content. The unstructured form of The Unfortunates attempted to evoke Johnson’s experiences after his friend Tony Tillinghast died of cancer at the age of 29. He described this novel, surely a librarian’s worst nightmare (does each fascicule need its own shelf-mark?) as ‘a physical, tangible metaphor for randomness and the nature of cancer’. Johnson’s critical pronouncements can make his fiction sound as though it must be pretentious tripe. It isn’t. The Unfortunates captures exactly the wreckage of recollection that you experience after having seen someone die of cancer (as Johnson put it, ‘I slip into the second person, in defence’). It also has a very good fascicule describing what goes through the head of a clever person as he writes a report on a football match and tries to weave through the clichés and slip a joke into the bottom corner past the subs. But Johnson’s commitment to ‘truth’ also means that some parts of The Unfortunates go on and on about his ‘betrayal’ by a woman, there called Wendy but elsewhere given her own actual name of Muriel. Just sometimes Johnson’s efforts to revolutionise form in order to make it serve content could lead him to rediscover narrative techniques (endless repetitions which evoke the endless cycles of obsessive jealousy) mastered long ago by every pub bore in the land.
Certainly Johnson could overestimate his own unconventionality. Some aspects of his novels from the 1960s don’t just seem old now but must have seemed old-fashioned even when they first appeared. When one of his not-always-very-fictional men meets one of his not-always-very-fictional women you can be fairly sure that gas fires, condoms, physical embarrassment and eventual betrayal or disappointment are not far away. The mood of these scenes is often curiously similar to that of Philip Larkin’s novels from two decades before, with their mingling of beery male intimacy, social unease and sexual anxiety. Jill Has Sex, with Metafiction (the comma is here, as always, important) might sum up the bad side of B.S. Johnson’s work from this period. Both he and Larkin would of course have been outraged by this comparison, which may or may not be a sign that it is accurate.
What he has in the earlier writing, though – and especially in Trawl – is a deliberately unsettling fictional rhythm. This is often actually painful (in a good way, or at least in an expressive way) because it seems to be, and I imagine actually was, the rhythm of a mind fighting with itself. Often Johnson starts to tell a story and then wilfully resists his fictional instincts. So as he lies on the trawler hearing machinery crashing above him he recalls a story from the past and takes it close to the rub – the pain of being dumped or the pleasure of getting laid or the memory of a betrayal – and then forecloses the narrative with ‘This is boring,’ or by allowing an obsessive desire for accuracy to interfere with a fictional climax: ‘And she led the next step, put her hands down and unzipped, no, they were buttons then, unbuttoned my flies.’ Johnson on board ship repeatedly heaves up his guts with seasickness. At the same time he regurgitates his past life, skirting up to the loss of a girlfriend and then backing away from telling about it. And there is always more to come up. This makes the writing seem to be a kind of anti-therapy, where resistance to telling a story is also resistance to giving shape to his own past, which exists in its own amorphous morbid flow.
At his funnier moments, though, what might seem like formal tricks create an effect that would have been impossible to convey in any other way. His second novel, Albert Angelo (1964), is about a supply teacher who really wants to be an architect. It has a section in double columns. In the left-hand column (it is a geology lesson), Albert patiently explains to the children about the formation of rocks. Meanwhile in the right-hand column Albert thinks things like ‘sentence getting tortuous’ and ‘Lesson appalling. For chrissake pull it together.’ This is formal innovation as truth-telling: when you’re teaching you do regularly hear yourself losing your way and sounding like a pedant or an idiot. He also uses a wild wingding ( is the closest I can manage) to prefix Albert’s preliminary physical assessments of people (‘ Blue eyes, staring, postbox mouth, ears like open cardoors ’). Probably we all do that too, though without the wingding, as a kind of provisional aide memoire of or judgment on those we see or meet. On p. 163 of Albert Angelo comes what is often billed as Johnson’s climactic rebellion against fiction. The narrator says, ‘OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING!’, and declares that the novel is really about him: Albert’s desire to be an architect is really Johnson’s desire to be a poet, and ‘telling stories is telling lies.’ This is again not simply a matter of crushing the conventions of realist fiction to the ground for the sake of it. Johnson equates the collapse of conventional fiction with truth-telling. This is by no means a totally secure equation. Quite apart from the fact that this deliberate rupture of the fiction might well prompt a less than entirely sympathetic reader to say to Johnson, ‘FUCK ALL THIS MESSING ABOUT: USE YOUR FUCKING IMAGINATION!’, the ‘truth’ established in this way is clearly parasitic on convention, since it depends on the visible overturning of convention. The technique could (irritatingly to Johnson, no doubt) be seen as simply a rhetorical move which declares ‘this bit of the novel must be real because I have just declared the other bit to be a fake.’ There is a sort of self-destructive deadlock here, and while it is unjust to someone who killed himself to read his fiction as though it necessarily points towards that end, there are times when Johnson’s writing does seem to be setting about itself with something like a vengeance.
To see the earlier novels as a species of imaginative self-harm is probably to join the dots in my initial staticky view of Johnson ‘experimental … . suicide … . wrists’ with too crudely biographical a line, especially since the later fiction moves onto rather different terrain. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) is Johnson at his best. In his early life he worked for a while as an accountant. He knew all about Luca Pacioli’s invention in 1494 of double-entry bookkeeping, in which you keep debits and credits in two columns and add a notional balancing payment, which is your equity, to one column in order to equalise the two sums. Christie Malry (whom we are told in the first sentence ‘was a simple person’) adapts the principles of double-entry bookkeeping to his own life. He starts to record small inconveniences inflicted on him by ‘Them’. These he records as debits. He then extracts credits in revenge, and sums the account in regular double-entry reports. After the first account They owe him £8.67. This figure includes the modest sum of 55p for ‘chagrin at learning no secrets’ at work. The debits, however, rapidly multiply and inflate. By the end of the novel They owe him £352,392 for injuries (misc.), including the sum of £311,398 for ‘Socialism not given a chance’. To cancel out these debts Christie starts to kill people. Each life taken is treated as a credit to Christie of £1.30. Blowing up seven people at the tax office is consequently small change, but poisoning 20,479 innocent West Londoners with arsenic brings in £26,622.70 worth of credit. Johnson had the reasonable belief that those who read a novel not only know that they are reading a novel but should be reminded of the fact, and Christie Malry is more insistent than any of Johnson’s other works that it is a novel. The narrator warns Christie at one point that he doesn’t have much time left because the book is a short one, to which the hero replies chirpily: ‘The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short.’ His girlfriend’s old mum (addressed as ‘Old Mum’) says: ‘Aaaaer, it was worth it, all those years of sacrifice, just to get my daughter placed in a respectable novel like this, you know. It’s my crowning achievement. And with only one leg, too!’
Despite its double-column façade of literary self-consciousness, Christie Malry is the closest Johnson came to a piece of social and economic realism. It appeared in 1973, when the UK inflation rate stood at around 10 per cent and was just about to double, and when the IRA began its first major wave of bomb attacks on London. Between 1970 and 1972 the Angry Brigade was said to have planted 25 bombs in the city. Johnson attended several days of the long trial of alleged members of the group in the latter part of 1972, where one of the accused, Stuart Christie, was acquitted. ‘I am a cell of one,’ Johnson’s own Christie says. The novel’s sums of debt that balloon out of control, its willingness to convert BOOM into cash and payback, are directly aimed at the heart of its age. The TV script ‘What is the Right Thing and Am I Doing It?’ (1971) – which is published for the first time in Well Done God! – casts further light on the genesis of Christie Malry, which it preceded by a couple of years. ‘What is the Right Thing’ tells the story of a regional nationalist (the region is unspecified, but Wales is the most likely, since Johnson had a pleasurable fellowship at the Gregynog Press in 1970). The central character is released from prison after having bombed the Duke of Wellington’s statue. The play ends with him taking what appears to be a suitcase of gelignite into the office of a newspaper as payback for the way it has misrepresented him. When the suitcase of supposedly explosive matter is thrown out of the window by the terrified editor it bursts open and releases a shower of poems. That’s a typical Johnsonian avoidance of a narrative climax, which hijacks (and yes, that terrorist metaphor matters to his fiction) a fictional crisis for a not entirely jocular piece of metafictionality. A boom tends to turn into a ‘boo’, a bomb into an explosive literary device.
Christie Malry works in the same seam. But it’s also probably the place in which Johnson came closest to overcoming his fear of fiction, and perhaps is even the point at which he succumbed to a version of what he termed ‘the English disease of the objective correlative’. That disease in his view encouraged ‘traditional’ novelists to believe that the orderly relating of a fictional narrative could clarify and objectify an emotion, or, to put it simply, that fictional lies could harbour truths. Christie Malry creates not just a fictional picture of its age but also a teasing self-parody of the touchy and resentful Johnson himself, who listed among his reasons for writing ‘a desire to get my own back on people who have hurt me’, and who was also a meticulous logger of his own life. He kept graphs which recorded the number of hours he spent writing each day and how many words he produced. Christie Malry fictionalises those aspects of himself, and does so without succumbing to the direct transcription of experience which could sometimes clog his earlier writing. Finding a literary form for hurt was perhaps the prime end towards which Johnson experimented, and in Christie Malry he got as close as he ever came to allowing himself to say something both about himself and his world through a fiction, while keeping it seriously unreal and seriously funny.
Johnson is not interesting just because he experimented or because he killed himself or even because his experiments often carry an explosive and destructive emotional charge. He was also really good at using the old-fashioned physical form of the printed codex. He wrestled with a hand-press during his time at the Gregynog Press, and managed in the course of printing a very small run of a very short volume of poems to use petrol rather than paraffin to thin his ink. ‘You could have blown yourself up,’ a friend remarked. Doing explosive things with print was the main skill for which Johnson should be remembered. There are no ebook editions of the novels, and the potential for disassembly and random reassembly of The Unfortunates is a kind of tribute to paper and to print: the fiction is dependent on the physical form of the paper book even when it cuts that form to shreds.
House Mother Normal (1971) also depends on shuffling through a physical book in a way that would be almost unimaginable in electronic form. It consists of eight synchronous interior monologues by residents of an old people’s home, plus a concluding and also synchronous monologue by their ‘house mother’. The monologues are arranged so that the novel moves from the garrulous Sarah Lamson, who has most of her faculties, to Rosetta Stanton, who is barely there at all. Rosetta manages only the odd word of Welsh, including ‘gogoniant’ (‘glory’) and ‘iachus’ (‘healthy’), which are spread across a largely blank page. Finally she is shouted at and jolted into English: ‘I am a prisoner in my self,’ she thinks, and then ‘n o / m o r’, after which she is silent, presumed dead. To understand the by-play and competition between the not quite gaga residents you have to be able to cross-refer to the corresponding points in each of their stories, by which means you find out gradually who is talking to whom or why someone laughs at a particular moment. The nine synchronous booklets or minds in the novel relentlessly converge on the same physical reality. With varying degrees of competence and compliance, all the novel’s residents sing a rousing hymn about the value of carrying on. They all compete in a game of geriatric pass the parcel in which the prize turns out to be dog-shit. They all finally witness the house mother receive oral sex from her Borzoi. The ‘same’ things happen on the same pages within each character’s section: thus p.5 of each 21-page monologue treats the same events.
Some of the best effects to which this gives rise are almost invisible. When we finally get to the house mother’s monologue we discover that on p.18 (and therefore on p.18 of each previous monologue) she orders her charges to decide how their bodies are to be disposed of after death, giving them the choice of ‘burial, cremation, acid bath, remote moorland exposure, or whatever’. All the residents, even those who score ten out of ten on the Critical Questions asked of the geriatric (‘Where are you now? What is this place?’ and so on), have mentally checked out at that point in their own monologues. And poor Rosetta Stanton has probably been a page or so dead by then. This is again a kind of columnar thinking: in House Mother Normal each mind has to be read alongside the others. The novel also has in its dark background a house mother (normal!) who spends most of the time – when she is not making her charges tilt at each other with mops like knights of old or adulterate whisky at her command – absorbed in that meticulous task dear to Johnson’s heart. She is bookkeeping, recording the small profits she is making out of the old dears’ labours. Still further in the background, as often in Johnson’s later fiction, the supposedly life-preserving mechanisms of the welfare state spin out of control.
Johnson can’t be said to have had all the virtues of a traditional novelist (plot: not really; dialogue: sometimes; character: little other than his own). But at the core of his writing lay four very traditional aims. He was always trying to find different ways to articulate how things made him feel. He looked hard at the dark material base of his world. He was preoccupied with the diversity of human perceptions. He also repeatedly wondered how that diversity could coexist with the common and undigestible fact that we live under the same terminal corporeal constraints. Was he as good as Joyce or as Beckett? No: he was too suspicious of his own inventiveness. Should he remain in print and be read? Definitely. That is because of the direct emotional charge carried by his formal tricks. In Albert Angelo there is a cut-out slot in pp.149-51. This allows you to read a passage from the novel’s future which goes like this: ‘struggled to take back his knife, and inflicted on him a mortal wound above his right eye (the blade penetrating to a depth of two inches) from which he died instantly’. You expect this to be an account (both in the sense of a narrative and a debt rendered) of the actual killing of the teacher Albert Angelo by his pupils, because things are not going well in the school at which he is supply teaching. But when you finally get to the page in question, you discover that the stabbing is actually that of Christopher Marlowe in an East End pub in 1593. This was famously the result of a squabble over the ‘reckoning’ (or, the bill). Johnson simply couldn’t get away from the reckoning of accounts; but the pain of the knife and the threat of death are what drove him to cut holes in his pages and in his readers’ perceptions. So in tribute him I offer you here your very own DIY B.S. Johnson cut-out. (Note to online readers: buy a print copy – you know you want to – before attempting to follow the instructions below.)
Go on. Fetch the scissors. Cut through just one page first. If you don’t like what you find behind the box you can keep on cutting and cutting until you find a sentence that suits the gap. And if you can’t find one that seems just right, then keep on cutting right through the small ads. In the end you will create a peep-hole through which you can wink at people on the tube. Yes, you too can experience the emotional possibilities of postmodernism with the B.S. Johnson tribute cut-out, only in the LRB.