Paul's Reviews > The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson
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Feb 13, 2009

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Read in February, 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 this to work (which it does, and fairly well), though, each vignette has to be fairly vague. Johnson uses the indefinite nature of memory to explain this -- the book concerns a narrator traveling to a city on assignment, realizing he's been there before, and remembering the death of a close friend with whom he'd spent time in the city. Again, it works, but the vague and hazy nature of each vignette makes it difficult to really get into the story. There's no real conflict -- everything that's going to happen has already happened, and the narrator is even constantly questioning his own recollection of certain details. Further, Johnson's style is, I thought, a bit offputting. The stream-of-consciousness fits the dream theme, but sentences like this (of which the book is almost entirely composed) get to be a bit annoying:

We must have come up this hill, there, past here, and on, he leading, Tony, we two lovers, like Merlin in a tale, we were that besotted, or illfated, at least I was, June later said that I seemed besotted with her, or daft about her, or something like that.

It's a bit of fun, choosing which signature to pick up next, but stylistically and conceptually it didn't really do it for me. Kudos to Johnson for making this work, though. (Kudos as well to the publisher for the lovely packaging.) There's nothing worse than an author "experimenting" with form and completely leaving out any sort of pathos. I definitely felt for the narrator and his ailing friend. Just not that much.
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