‘Boundary-pushing mid-twentieth century fiction and drama’ – Albert Angelo, House Mother Normal, Trawl, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, and Well Done God! by B.S. Johnson

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Bookmunch Towers is awash with B.S. Johnson; it’s been a month of boundary-pushing mid-twentieth century fiction and drama for us, with ne’er a moment to draw breath. Picador have reissued four of Johnson’s seven novels (the first and last remain out of print, and the fourth, The Unfortunates, better known as the book that comes unbound in a box, is still available, though not in this latest flush of reprints) as well as releasing a new hardback collection of assorted drama and short prose, Well Done God! The BFI have also put out a new DVD of Johnson’s work in film, but sadly, you’ll have to wait until we open up a talking pictures division before you’ll see a write-up of that on these pages.

Anyway.

If you’ve read Johnson before, you’ll be pleased to hear that the editors working on his back catalogue have retained all of the writer’s various typesetting requirements/idiosyncrasies (page layout, cutouts, diagrams et al.); in fact, in Well Done God!, you’ll get to read various articles by Johnson on that very matter—the reasons behind his stylistic choices; the awkwardness of customs officers when confronted with shipments of books that, as far as they were concerned, had had obscenities excised; complaints from Sterne-illiterate readers about textless grey pages. Well Done God! itself, for an anthology, is oddly typeset: it includes Johnson’s sort-of memoir, Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?, several pieces of short fiction, six plays (mostly TV plays), and a bunch of brief pieces of journalism, a few of them previously unpublished, and all of these are set out as the editors supposed Johnson intended, so that there’s no consistency of fonts, margins, etc, as it goes along. It’s a refreshing tactic, and one that’s addressed not only by Johnson in the essays, when he discusses his various choices, but also in the three (count them) introductions to the volume—one per editor—and their explanatory Note. The editors in question (Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan, Philip Tew) just about teeter on the professional side of gushing devotion in their passages; that’s usual form, of course, for these posthumous collections, but the hint of fanboy/girl fervour here is less irritating than it might be, because this book really is one for the Johnson completists and fanatics. That’s not to say it’s not good—it is—but rather that it’s so comprehensive (and it’s still only a selection of his extant works) that it gets somewhat repetitive, and it’s likely only the true fans who’ll stick it through. Like many writers, Johnson has a limited number of preoccupations, and they’re all in repeated evidence here: his insistence on ‘fealty’ to the truth; his (justified) dislike of the term ‘experimental’ (‘experimental to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for unsuccessful‘); his disdain for the state of the UK publishing industry, including the amount of bad literature and bad poetry (‘verse’) in circulation, the vanity presses, the shoddy payment of writers by publishers and booksellers, the lack of a proper writers’ union; his memories and opinions of wartime evacuations; his criticisms of a university system too focussed on the job market and not at all concerned with the young writers in its works. It’s very disheartening reading, in a way; Johnson wrote much of these opinion pieces in the 1960s and they’re no less valid today. Still, reading from cover to cover makes some of these repetitions a little too obvious. The plays and short fiction are interesting, too; like the novels and the non-fiction, they’re overwhelmingly concerned with how the writer can marry content and form to tell the truth, which was Johnson’s goal in writing. From an archaeological position, some of the pieces regurgitate material Johnson subsequently put to better use elsewhere, so the book is, in a way, a tantalising glimpse of the writer at work. Whether or not the plays are as good as the prose, I find it hard to judge (not a dramatist, here), but they’re funny and intriguing; if you like Albert Angelo, you’ll like You’re Human Like The Rest of Them, and Catch 22 fans will appreciate the grim glee of One Sodding Thing After Another. The journalism is a mixed bag; there’s football pieces, literary rants, and a large handful of Beckett-related paraphernalia, which, though insightful, is, again, repetitive, and massively sullied, I’ve got to say, by Johnson’s consistent references to Beckett as a British writer (in On British Cinema).

By and large, though, it’s a fascinating anthology, and one that would be best appreciated, like most of these types of publications, by dipping in and out of it over time, and not by gorging oneself in an extreme Johnson-fest over the course of a week. Ahem.

Onto the novels! These are, like I said, reprints, so you’ve possibly read them all before, and if you haven’t, take this as your cue to start. Picador have been faithful in their reproduction of Johnson’s original views on how each book should be laid out, and all the peculiarities (Albert Angelo‘s holes, House Mother Normal‘s chronologically specific page layouts) are just as effective and fresh as they were at the time. (Which would depress Johnson mightily, I’m sure, as he several times in the anthology condemns his contemporaries for their failure to acknowledge Joyce’s legacy and push the novel forwards.) Each book has a brief introduction, by the likes of Toby Litt, John Lanchester, Andrew Motion and John McGregor, and, as good as they might be, I’d advise (as I’d always advise) skipping them until after you’ve read the book because with the best will in the world, they’re sometimes out to ruin the surprise (Motion, Litt: I’m looking at you). (Though actually, Litt’s summation of Albert Angelo as ‘crudely experimental’ seems to me unjust and certainly in keeping with the type of reviewing of which Johnson himself despaired: see Well Done God!.)

Albert Angelo, then, is (initially, sort of—well, you’ll see) about the travails of a supply teacher; Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is about a young accountant who’s keeping a record of the wrongs administered him by society and his own counter-blows to balance the books; Trawl, a clear precursor of Nicholson Baker’s work, is a stream-of-consciousness narrative set on a fishing trawler and told by a man who’s come on board to think over his life and who’s now suffering from abominable sea-sickness; House Mother Normal is a nine-and-a-bit-part set of monologues detailing an evening in an old folks’ home—each part covers the same time period, but from the perspective of a different resident, each of whom suffers from varying levels of dementia, reflected by blank, thought-less, spaces on the page. They’re all deservedly reprinted: they’re very, very funny; formally innovative and clever, bleak and disturbing and thought-provoking. Reading them back to back makes me even more curious than before about the two unavailable novels (Travelling People was kept out of print by Johnson, and his estate have respected that) and the volume of poetry. Johnson claims to have made deliberate formal choices to write certain stories as novels, whereas his poetry (his true calling, he says) comes out as such without that generic decision-making process. Johnson was scathing about contemporary writers who used what he called the ‘exhausted, clapped-out’ nineteenth century modes of so-called realist writing, calling their work ‘anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant, and perverse’; he disdained a reliance on plot, of ‘what happened next’; he set out to tell ‘the truth’, and he says, ‘Where I depart from convention, it is because the convention has failed.’ For each non-standard move he makes, he claims ‘a literary rationale and a technical justification’. Certainly, like the best of the post-modernists, he demolishes fiction’s fourth wall, and the results are shocking and brilliant.

Any Cop?: Not if you’re after some safe old clapped-out old-school realism, but certainly if you want to expand your reading comfort zone. I guarantee some laughs, at the very least.

Valerie O’Riordan


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