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The Unfortunates

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  451 ratings  ·  65 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 KavanImpossible Object by Nicholas MosleyThe Unfortunates by B.S. JohnsonChristie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. JohnsonThe Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard
British Experimental Novels 1940-1980
3rd out of 89 books — 22 voters
Infinite Jest by David Foster WallaceSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutGravity's Rainbow by Thomas PynchonIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo CalvinoWhite Noise by Don DeLillo
Postmodern Genius
72nd out of 456 books — 366 voters


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Community Reviews

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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
Theo Howe
A medium cannot progress without experimentation. Who knows where literature would have been without Joyce, Faulkner, Lewis, and many others doing their modernist thing, ditto for the postmodernists in the 60s. B.S. Johnson experiments in ways that were never likely to catch on but manages to create a powerfully unique book because of it. The Unfortunates is famed for being a 'book in a box' that is, aside from the first and final chapters, you read the chapters in whichever order you desire. Th ...more
Orange Postman
A switch cycle of stories spread across my chess table, and like the game of chess, there is a first and last move—the variations are not in order. Twenty-seven short stories, to be more specific, some were one page, and others six, but all the stories were part of a timeline for me to choose my first story of B.S. Johnson’s, The Unfortunates. I parted the First and the Last pages before placing the remaining 25 pages clockwise, and then counterclockwise. You are given two instructions by the au ...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
Bucket
The main character is a novelist who goes to a city in England to report on a soccer match (this is how he makes some extra money). The city happens to be where a friend of his, Tony, who recently died of cancer, lived. As he gets lunch, goes to the match, watches, and writes his report, his mind wanders around in the memories of his friend's illness and death, as well as his own history with Wendy (who broke his heart) and the writing of his first two novels.

The book is divided into 27 section
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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
Victoria Blake
When I first heard about this I thought it was a bit pretentious but I bought it anyway and found it entrancing. The fact you can decide for yourself which order to read it in is great. Much more fun than I thought it would be. Weirdly, I was on the tube and late for a funeral when I picked out the chapter which starts, 'We were late for the funeral, through the train being late...' Fortunately, I got to mine on time!
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
Steven Kay
"the gimmick outshines and spoils what could have been a good novel" "Some parts are certainly well written and poignant and might have been more moving had I not lost patience with the whole pretentious concept which put me right off anything the pseud of writer was trying to convey"
Full review of football novels at: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014...
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
Hannah Norman
This was such an interesting book! Instead of chapters, there were many small booklets. Besides the first and the last, you could shuffle them up and read them anyway that they landed. Very intriguing!

However, the novel was also written as a "stream of thought". This means that there could be an entire paragraph of one sentence/thought and by the end of it you still didn't know what the point of it was. This made it very difficult to read.

The story itself was very depressing, but very true to l
...more
Casey
It's easy for post-modern to be all style and no substance, but this novel is a treasure. In reflecting upon the death of his friend, the narrator jumps around as the reader must since the chapters are arranged at random. It's like an exercise in memory and cuts to the heart of human emotion.
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2015 Reading Chal...: The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson 1 5 May 27, 2015 06:32AM  
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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.” 4 likes
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