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The Unfortunates

3.96  ·  Rating Details  ·  561 Ratings  ·  80 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, 124 pages
Published 1999 by Picador (first published 1969)
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Ice by Anna KavanThe Unfortunates by B.S. JohnsonChristie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. JohnsonImpossible Object by Nicholas MosleyThe Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard
British Experimental Novels 1940-1980
2nd out of 89 books — 29 voters
Infinite Jest by David Foster WallaceSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutGravity's Rainbow by Thomas PynchonThe Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas PynchonIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Postmodern Genius
78th out of 436 books — 440 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,176)
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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

Aug 31, 2012 s.penkevich rated it really liked it
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
Apr 17, 2011 Emily rated it really liked it
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
Libros Prohibidos
Aug 20, 2015 Libros Prohibidos rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Autobiográfica y experimental, Los desafortunados tiene una estructura imposible sin orden (ni físico ni literal) que hace que apenas pueda ser considerada como novela. Johnson consigue de este modo hacer llegar sus sentimientos al lector de la forma más honesta y pura que es posible recordar en toda la historia de la literatura. Reseña completa:
Sep 10, 2008 Andrew rated it it was amazing
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
Mariano Hortal
Publicado en

Los desafortunados de B.S Johnson. Fragilidad de la memoria, desintegración de la persona

Dice Jonathan Coe en la imprescindible introducción a Los desafortunados:
“[…] a mediados de los cincuenta, ya estudiante maduro, llegó al King’s College de Londres. Fue allí, durante una zambullida, por lo demás rutinaria, en el canon occidental, donde descubrió las obras de Sterne, Joyce y Beckett, a quienes adoptó enseguida como héroes y mentores. A part
Nov 05, 2009 Jasmine rated it really liked it
Shelves: british
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
Sep 05, 2014 Lisa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 22, 2015 Rita rated it it was amazing
Shelves: english, literature
Yesterday I had a privilege few have. I had this book read to me, all around Nottingham, as close to the venues described in the book as possible. 27 people in character as Bryan were reading different chapters in different places. The feeling of having to track them down following a map and go inside pubs, cafes, the City Council, Broadway cinema, a private house, a parked car, a hotel, etc., they all added to the story making this an incredible experience. Thank you to Excavate and their commu ...more
May 17, 2011 David rated it really liked it
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
the gift
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
Jan 17, 2016 Carolinemawer rated it liked it
I loved the idea, and I really loved the reading.
Both the words, and all the shuffling within and between each section.
You know lots of people say 'show don't tell'?
Well this book-in-a-box really does show the vagueness, cloudy, random, but-definitely-fitting-together nature of memory.
It's not just me! I thought
I'm going
to avoid
reading that
Of course the concept of a spoiler is plain wrong if the book in a random order (I physically shuffled my
Jan 10, 2008 Rick rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
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
Jul 12, 2008 Mike Ingram rated it liked it
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
Marc Nash
Jul 20, 2013 Marc Nash rated it really liked it
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
Jan 18, 2009 Beth rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 15, 2013 Kim rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013
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
Spencer Powell
Jun 02, 2014 Spencer Powell rated it really liked it
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
Theo Howe
Apr 27, 2015 Theo Howe rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 31, 2015 Orange Postman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 02, 2015 Leisa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is by far one of the most unique reading experiences I have ever had. Initially, I was hesitant as to how this novel (which is not actually a novel) would come together, but B. S. Johnson has created a beautiful rumination on death and life as it proceeds after a loved one has passed.

As I mentioned, this is not really a novel. In fact, I'd be more apt to call it a memoir of the author's memories surrounding his friend, Tony. What is really brilliant about this book (which Johnson points ou
Apr 01, 2012 Deanne rated it really liked it
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
Mar 07, 2010 MJ Nicholls rated it really liked it
Samuel Beckett meets Ron Manager.

Isn't it, wasn't it... marvellous.
Apr 24, 2014 Jennifer rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Sep 25, 2011 Russell George rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 15, 2009 Paul rated it liked it
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
May 18, 2008 Erin rated it really liked it
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
Jess Grayson
Mar 30, 2016 Jess Grayson rated it liked it
Shelves: read-for-school

The format of this book is the most interesting part about it. Collected in a book-size box, this work is composed of 27 pamphlets, all to be read in a random order aside from the designated first and the last pamphlets.

The plot, a man remembering snippets of experiences with his friend who has passed away from cancer, is relatively dull and surprisingly devoid of emotion.

I read this novel for school and, aside from the format, was not really impressed or moved by it.
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2015 Reading Chal...: The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson 1 5 May 27, 2015 06:32AM  
  • Alphabetical Africa
  • The Shrimp and the Anemone
  • The Ordeal of Richard Feverel
  • The Royal Family
  • The Three Sisters
  • The Sound of My Voice
  • A Legacy
  • Manservant and Maidservant
  • Alberta and Jacob
  • Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
  • Berg
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  • Room Temperature
  • Sour Sweet
  • The Good Companions
  • The Making of Americans
  • The Tunnel
  • The Three Paradoxes
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 about B.S. Johnson...

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“In general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies.” 4 likes
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