The Unfortunates
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The Unfortunates

3.89 of 5 stars 3.89  ·  rating details  ·  355 ratings  ·  52 reviews
BS Johson's infamous book-in-a-box is, if remembered at all, notorious for its presentation rather than its content. The "book" consists of a first and last section plus 25 other chapters, each one coming as a self-contained "pamphlet", that can be read in any order the reader likes. The subject matter concerns a journalist's day covering a football match in Nottingham, re...more
Hardcover
Published 1999 by Picador (first published 1969)
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Ice by Anna KavanChristie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. JohnsonImpossible Object by Nicholas MosleyThe Unfortunates by B.S. JohnsonThe Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard
British Experimental Novels 1940-1980
4th out of 89 books — 15 voters
Infinite Jest by David Foster WallaceGravity's Rainbow by Thomas PynchonSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt VonnegutThe Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas PynchonIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Postmodern Genius
46th out of 254 books — 257 voters


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s.penkevich
Aug 31, 2012 s.penkevich rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Your 'to-read' list
Recommended to s.penkevich by: A little bird told me

How can I place his order, his disintegration?

Through fragments of a randomized collection of memories called up while wandering through a city, the reader explores the life, loves and losses of the narrator. As such a premise would remind many of Ulysses and Joyce’s incredible use of the stream-of-consciousness, B.S. Johnson (1933-1973) manages to create something unique and inventive with The Unfortunates. His story is separated into 27 packets which are intended to be read at random aside f...more
Mike Puma
4.5 stars rounded up.
Here it was he talked about the RAF. So? [10 space gap] So must others, for ever, or talk about something like it, and it does not matter to them, now, it cannot have mattered at any time to me, so why this, if it is so meaningless, anything means something only if you impose meaning on it, which in itself is a meaningless thing, the imposition.
…why do reasons matter?...Sometimes I think I shall become a Surrealist.

Another day, another review, hopefully one which will encour

...more
Andrew
I'm a sucker for gimmicky books, so when I saw this "book-in-a-box" no one had to twist my arm to get me to purchase it, and I'm glad I did. Unlike some of the other gimmicky books I've read (House of Leaves, The Raw Shark Texts), you don't get the impression that B.S. Johnson was patting himself on the back for being clever as he wrote this. If the introduction is to be believed, he actually probably was patting himself on the back as he wrote it, but you wouldn't know it to read it. The chapte...more
Emily
Twenty minutes ago, I had this review in the bag. I had taken thorough notes, had arranged them by topic, and had even highlighted passages to quote.

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, generalizat...more
Jasmine
Okay this was a book I should have read a long time ago, and I finally read. the content is 4 stars the structure is 3 stars.

lets talk form first. I respect the avant garde thing of splitting up the book. However, content wise:

the book has two pieces memory and present. The memories are these cool intermixed first fiancée/wife and his friend dying and the association of the two, also memories of his first 2 novels. In comparison with present day Ginnie, being a reporter and his son.

this all w...more
Lisa
This is experimental fiction from the 1960s, and it's the most unusual book I've ever read. It comes in 27 separate sections, unbound, in a box, like boxed sets of greeting cards sometimes do. The first and last sections are labelled so you know where to start and finish, but in between, you read the sections in random order.
It's not just cleverness for the sake of it. It's a representation of a man's mind when he is distracted from his work by grief. It's not difficult to read, it's like eavesd...more
David
May 17, 2011 David rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to David by: Michael Dirda, Washington Post
Shelves: read-fiction
People aren't supposed to write reviews of B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates in ham-handed homage to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. I'm certainly not going to do it anymore. I've finished my incomprehensible review. The next one I write is going to be coherent. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt about an unbound bunch of chapters, chosen randomly from a box.

Listen: B. S. Johnson's journalist hero has become unstuck in time. He ends one randomly-chose...more
thegift
first impression: this in an interesting structure devised to express the time of mourning a friend, a woman, a past, and in its deliberate renditions of vignettes of memories, in its conversational narration, certainly captures evocative recall- but, unfortunately, this is a work that leads me to think more than leads me to feel...

on reflection: to think is not a bad thing, in fact, i like to think. perhaps i will reflect and thus increase my rating, however this is a big perhaps. i may read an...more
Rick
The Unfortunates is Johnson’s notorious “novel in a box.” Its signatures of varying length are held together by a ribbon and there are 27 of them, the first of which is marked First and last of which is marked Last and those in between were randomly ordered by the collator with the reader invited to further randomize the order. Why, you might ask? The novel is a work of non-fiction in the form of a novel—throughout his life, Johnson insisted on that elusive distinction. It captures the work assi...more
Mike Ingram
If you live with a significant other, or a roommate, or a parent or sibling or aunt or summer boarder, you could read this book in partnership, each of you taking one of the short sections, reading it, then sorting it into its appropriate pile (I've Read But He Hasn't, He's Read But I Haven't, We've Both Read, Neither Of Us Has Read). This might be a fun game, and a unique kind of bonding experience.

Unfortunately, since I live alone, having a book-in-a-box, the sections of which can be read in w...more
Marc Nash
A book that comes in a book-shaped box! Twenty-seven sections, one labelled ‘first’, one ‘last’ and the reader is free to choose the order in which they read the interceding 25 sections. This isn’t a device for the sake of being tricksy, but the author wants to replicate the random and unreliable nature that our memories work.

A writer and journalist is sent to cover a soccer match in a Midlands town. As he steps off the train two hours ahead of kick-off, a host of memories rush into his head as...more
Beth
Bizarre, book in a box. An fabulous experiment that works --- though it won't be to everyone's taste.
In the late 60s, Johnson, a sports reporter, went to Nottingham to report on a soccer match. A veteran traveler, he didn't realize he had already visited Nottingham before and it only gradually dawned on him that, in fact, not only had he been here before, but this was where a very close friend of his had lived --- and died---a rather long, painful death of cancer.
In The Unfortunates, Johnson at...more
Deanne
Apart from the first and the last, the booklets can be read in any order. A set of memories of a friend brought on by a trip too a midland town. Think it must be Nottingham, castle on a sandstone cliff with caves where people lived into the 1800's. A town with an industry based on lace, and Newstead abbey nearby.
MJ Nicholls
Samuel Beckett meets Ron Manager.

Isn't it, wasn't it... marvellous.
Jennifer
A clever concept that works! Johnson's famous "book in a box" is about Johnson's semi-autobiographical memories regarding the untimely death of a friend from cancer.

The book has multiple sections that are loose and can be put into any order the reader chooses (with the exception of the first and last sections). I referred to it as an adult "choose your own adventure" and loved plucking random sections to see how they would complement the one I read before. And it does give the reader the sense o...more
Jon
B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson is one of the most intriguing writers I know of. A biography of him, LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT, has recently appeared and there appears to be somewhat of a revival of interest in him (if there can be a revival of interest in a writer as obscure as BSJ). His work was strongly influenced by Beckett but to be honest, I'd take B.S. over Sam B. any day. THE UNFORTUNATES, only recently published in the US, consists of a series of separately bound-together chapters that can be rea...more
Russell George
Wrote this fuller review for Lloyd and Rob's blog:

The first thing to say about ‘The Unfortunates’ is that this isn’t a book about football. Although the setting is the narrator’s assignment to report on a first division football match, this is just the tableau for a series of half-recalled recollections on his relationship with a close friend who has recently died of cancer. But football doesn’t, generally, make good literature anyway. Writers and film-makers tend to accentuate or exaggerate asp...more
Paul
Feb 15, 2009 Paul rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2009
In this book's introduction, Jonathan Coe states that Johnson felt a novel's primary goal was to call attention to itself, to comment on its own limitations, structure, etc. This is not what I think a novel's primary goal is, or should be, and it didn't bode well for my enjoyment of this book. Since the book is unbound, made up of maybe thirty little signatures that you can read in any order (except for the first and last), it's quite obvious that structure was #1 in Johnson's mind. In order for...more
Erin
May 18, 2008 Erin rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those looking to find another house of leaves.
so, for anyone not familiar with this book, johnson wanted to write a stream of consciousness book that was not dependent on binding to determine how the reader would string the thoughts together. in talking with friends about this book, i don't think i ever referred to it by its title. i have instead nicknamed it the book in a box. as in, "can you hand me my book in a box?" the writer is actually very talented, so this is more than just a novelty. in fact, the writing needed to be solid. since...more
Steve
I'm a total sucker for gimmicky, postmodern concept books. No question I loved the form of the text. What a worthwhile experiment in and of itself. That said, I simply didn't find the story very compelling. It's entirely too solipsistic (though I realize that's part of Johnson's theory of the art of fiction--the impossibility of generalization) to be palatable. In fact, my favorite of the "chapters" was the tour-de-force chapter that metafictively describes the process of writing the football ga...more
Anne Charnock
The new edition (1999) of The Unfortunates is, in fact, a beautiful object – a book-sized box that opens to reveal 27 individual sections, plus a forward by his biographer Jonathan Coe, all unbound. B S Johnson believed that all life was chaos and he urges us to read the sections in random order. The Unfortunates is an interior monologue – Johnson’s recollection of a soccer match and memories of his friendship with literary critic Tony Tillinghast who died of cancer at the age of 29. It seems fi...more
Spencer Powell
To be honest, the concept of the unfortunates was a lot better than the actual book. Being 27 separate pamphlets meant to be read in a random order is one of the coolest book concepts that I've come across. While the concept is great, the way it was executed wasn't all that great. The story focuses around a man who's best friend is slowly dying of cancer. He retells memories of his best friends death, but the tone throughout the book is a constant, somewhat boring drone. To be honest, if the boo...more
Kim
I picked this up because I was curious about the format and surprised that I had never heard of it (nor had the few colleagues I surveyed; turns out it was not published in the U.S. until the 40th anniversary edition in 2009). I found it a bit cumbersome on the material level and the novelty of the form did not necessarily accomplish anything that a stream-of-consciousness series of reflections might have done. That said, I appreciate that at the time of its first publication, it was quite inven...more
Emily
the format couldn't be better - separate signatures & leaves with passages of varying lengths that can (aside from the two labelled 'first' and 'last') be read in any order. love it.

emotionally, i didn't really connect to the story. some of the writing was lovely, and i eventually got into its halting, meandering flow. but it reminded me of when i saw 'atonement': i was completely baffled by the central relationship, to the point that i misread the whole thing and was grossly unimpressed. wi...more
John Pappas
Experimental novelist B.S Johnson crafts a moving tale in an entirely unique way. Telling the story of a man on his way to cover a soccer match, Johnson emphasizes the transitory nature of life and memory as the man confronts the ghosts of a friend who died of terminal cancer. Not a "book" per se, this novel comes as 27 separate sections, some only one page long, to be read in random order. Mirroring adeptly how memory blindsides a person and how close to the surface emotions like grief actually...more
Phinehas
This book consists of twenty seven unbound sections packaged in a box to be read in random order. Although this seems gimmicky, after reading the book I found it to be a simple and effective technique for illustrating the way that memory works. And memory is fundamentally what this book is "about". "The Unfortunates" is an autobiographical narrative concerning the authors' routine trip to Newcastle to cover a soccer match. (Johnson was a sports writer.) Traveling to this city to which he had not...more
Robert
"Not how he died, not what he died of, even less why he died are of concern, to me, only the fact that he did die, he is dead, is important: the loss to me, to us" (from "The Unfortunates"). Who wouldn't want that said of him after leaving this mortal coil? B.S. Johnson wrote experimental novels but, more importantly, he was a great writer and this "book in a box" (where the middle, loose chapters were meant to be shuffled like cards) is a highly satisfying read. Johnson's way of writing, his us...more
Phoebe
OK, I loved this. I bought it for the novelty of the format, but reading sections in a random order was completely logical and appropriate to the subject matter, providing a physical dimension to the way memories arise in a nonlinear fashion. Picking up each section separately -- whether a single page or a signature of twelve -- created additional intimacy, too. It felt like reading a collection of highly personal letters. Reviewer comparisons with Joyce, Beckett and Robbe-Grillet had made me ex...more
Adam
A beautiful, melancholy novel/memoir about loss and friendship, written in fine prose. Of course, most of the talk surrounds the book's form. It's a "book in a box," the box containing individual chapters not bound together. The first and last chapters are meant to be read as, well, the first and last chapters, but the remaining chapters are to be read in random order (and come in random order). Not merely a quirky experiment, this formal device allows an approximation of the scattered thoughts...more
Rob
As something of an anorak, this book drew me in when I guessed the location of the football ground visited by the sports reporter hero of the novel: the City Ground in Nottingham. The novel comes in a box and one is encouraged to shuffle the pages whilst making sure to read the introduction first and the conclusion last. The consequent interlinked chain of impressions of broken family relations and the terrible onset of illness in the North Midlands is powerful indeed.
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B. S. Johnson (Bryan Stanley Johnson) was an English experimental novelist, poet, literary critic and film-maker.

Johnson was born into a working class family, was evacuated from London during World War II and left school at sixteen to work variously as an accounting clerk, bank junior and clerk at Standard Oil Company. However, he taught himself Latin in the evenings, attended a year's pre-univers...more
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“In general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies.” 2 likes
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