In Search of a New Fiction – B.S. Johnson
A random encounter in a second hand book shop in London introduced me to the work of the late English writer B. S. Johnson in around 1980. I was a quiet teenager shuffling through the dusty literary tomes when I chanced upon a capacious guide to modern literature, crammed with glossy facsimiles of book covers, interviews, and essays. One image in particular caught my eye. A box, with papers streaming out of it, with a blurry scientific image on the cover, ‘ The Unfortunates.’
I devoured the short text about the author – …born in London…evacuee in the war…wrote Travelling People, House Mother Normal… poetry editor of Transatlantic Review…film and television director…praised by Beckett…committed suicide in 1973.” I was intrigued. Nothing was in print by the author, having instructed his publishing houses never to reprint his novels, so I engaged the services of a Book Finder Service who located most of his books over a matter of months, each taking me further into the intriguing depths of a writer who focused on a key issue : how to represent the random workings of the mind within the enforced consecutiveness of a book. Then one day, a small miracle occurred: a copy of the legendary book in a box ‘The Unfortunates’ was found.
The bound book superimposed a structure in its very manufacture – the binding imposing an order, fixing the page, the word. Here was a unique object – 27 loose leaf sections, temporarily held together with a removable wrapper with only the first and last sections to be read in order. One could shuffle the remaining 25 passages into any order one wished. The ability to be able to re-order the co-ordinates of the narrative was a “physical tangible metaphor” for the random workings of the mind according to the writer.
A chance invitation to the city of Nottingham as a sports critic for a football match had reminded Johnson of the death of a great friend who had lived there, one who had diligently supported him and died of cancer only two years previous. Wanting to capture the essence of this living presence and his pointless death led him to the dilemma of how to construct such a piece of writing. The problem for Johnson was the very randomness of the material, with the past and the present interweaving, with no chronology.
As far as possible he attempted to make the novel into an eight hour transcript of that Saturday afternoon as he pondered his friend’s death. Whether it was a solution or not, every choice is arbitrary, it was significantly a step marginally nearer. Johnson was a rare English writer in the twentieth century who resisted the conservatism of the British literary establishment. He wanted to force readers to question the form they are engaging in, often interrupting the narrative to alert the reader to the fact that what they were reading was ‘all lies, damned lies’, that you were engaged in a form of literary seduction, that the convention could only go so far. Addressing the reader directly in House Mother Normal (1971) the lead character states:
“And here you see, friends, I am about to step outside the convention, the framework…Thus you see I too am the puppet or concoction of a writer (you always knew there was a writer behind it all? Ah there’s no fooling you readers!)”
European literature had already been exploring new avenues of expression with the potent works of Stein, Joyce and Woolf in the earlier part of the century, followed more recently by the Oulipo group (Matthews, Perec, Calvino et al), Alain Robbe- Grillet, Ann Quinn, Natalie Saurraute and others. All of whom were attempting to break the form of a model but still within an identical framework, the bound structure of the physical novel. Johnson was attempting to take his work one stage further, creating a form of modern elegy, about the experience of writing (and the experience of death) and expressing this within a new form.
Johnson pre-empted our notion of the ‘cross discipline’ between the arts by not only being a prolific writer and editor but also a director and producer of films for television. You’re Human Like the Rest of Them won the Grand Prix at two International Film Festivals in 1968 and fueled by his almost arbitrary approach to narrative, works like Fat Man on a Beach (1973) for Welsh Television span between the comic with its english vulgarity and Carry On humour and a moving deconstructive examination of content and meaning. Set on a beach in Wales where he placed his first novel Travelling People, Johnson playfully reveals the ‘truth’ behind the deceitful editing and production of such a tv appearance with his constant asides to the camera and quips to the viewer, revealing the human condition as fragile and temporal, where “some things can only be said indirectly. One can only reflect the truth of what they were.”
Since I first wrote this piece in 2001 there have been several new editions of his works released, thereby allowing a wider audience to engage in his work. I’ve managed to pretty much complete my collection of publications of and relating to Johnson too. There’s even a Society dedicated to him, but sadly this hasn’t been updated in quite some time. Most recently I took delivery of this rather wonderful slim publication, Can I Come In and Talk About These and Other Ideas? which collects a selection of his previously unpublished proposals in a revelatory volume of creative hypnagogia that is also a visual record of Johnson’s abandoned work.
Johnson’s work and the ‘The Unfortunates’ in particular enhances our participation in the truth of experience and the fragility of the ‘real’ and for myself acted as a key inspiration within sound to leave the formal structures of rhythm, melody and composition behind and seek solutions in new methods of explication and exploration, wherever they may lie.
First published in a different form in Eye Magazine, 1981