Rick's Reviews > The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson
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Jan 10, 08

bookshelves: fiction
Read in September, 2007

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 assignment of Johnson, sent to a north England city to cover a soccer match, only to belatedly (and not convincingly) realize as he arrives in the train station that this is the city where his friend Tony lived and died a tragic victim of cancer as a young man just embarking on both his academic life and his life as a family man, married with young children. Johnson then seeks to recapture the experience of covering the match, revisiting his relationship with Tony (and his relationship with the woman, Wendy, who broke his own heart and whose relationship with Johnson overlaps that with Tony), and recounting his grief (double-sworded: friend, love). Sometimes he is focused on the details of a writer on assignment (the game, travel, writing, eating out) but often these details get knocked aside by a memory of Tony or one of Wendy, coming in on the Tony reminiscence but often taking over the recollection. The random way memory works and the tentative hold the mind has on what occurs to us, what moves us, what interrupts us, is the rationale for the free signatures. Unfortunately, the mind is far more liquid than a boxful of signatures. And my box contained four duplicate signatures, which at first I thought might be intentional because the mind also repeats itself, but not exactly. We may revisit the same memory or issue over and over but not in the same words and sequence of thoughts. I quickly realized it was a collator’s error. Still the device struggles to work even as the prose succeeds. Other than the fringe benefit of being able to put a particularly interesting section back in the pile somewhere ahead or to look at the clock before shutting out the light and sift through the remaining signatures to find a one or two-pager before quitting for the night, it doesn’t adequately replicate the mind’s experience. Johnson would no doubt counter that there was no better solution, but a failed solution is still a failed solution. It’s interesting as a device but even as such it distracts from the novel’s end: to capture a time of great grief and confused mourning and how one’s conscience navigates that time. When I was just reading signature after signature without regard for my freedom to choose the next one or any other one—in other words when it was like reading a bound book—you were inside Johnson’s mind and his sorrows, realizing his gift as a writer was in his honesty, his clear and witty prose, his refusal to compromise with what he was experiencing (touching it up so he might look better or for it to seem more important or whatever). It remains what it was and that is terribly human and quite moving.
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