Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Box Review

B.S.Johnson, The Unfortunates

I do not ordinarily essay book reviews here, but I'll make an exception for this; a journalistic approach is wholly appropriate to what the backmatter describes: "A sportswriter, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when he disembarks at the railway station. Memories of one of his best, most trusted friends, a tragically young victim of cancer, begin to flood through his mind as he attempts to go about the routine business of reporting a soccer match." Literary License supplies a summary of the whole package, the unconventional 'book in a box', with chapters presented unbound, to be read in random order between the first and the last. This being Stochastic Bookmark, how could I not review it?

But I'll go further than that. Just as B.S. breaks the back of the book (as if the requirement that books must be orderly is binding), I'll break the rules of book-reviewing in telling you how to read it.

The Unfortunates should be read in one sitting, but not in one chair, or even room. This can be accomplished by interspersing the reading with mundane household tasks (laundry, dishwashing), snacks, and other interruptions of ideally less than a quarter hour. Children may also be found useful in this regard. And smoke 'em if you got 'em, particularly if you have a room set aside for the purpose. (And should you occupy a studio apartment, just stroll among other reading venues.) But nothing that otherwise engages the intellect, not even newspapers or magazines, in fact especially not those, nor the internets.

Why? Pretty much for the same reason that B.S. wanted the chapter order indeterminate. It is not a gimmick, though that's what brings wider attention; nor is it an authorial abdication (but thanks Scott for prompting me to, um, order my thoughts). It is not that the story itself is without order, it is that there are many such orders, none of which are privileged. The process of recalling things is being reproduced, memories not determined by a narrative line but by a network of associations. It's evident that some segments fit into a chronological order, but even then there are even many such timelines (extending even to architecture). All these alternative orderings would be eclipsed by any canonical sequencing, and readers would derive meaning from supposed structure where there is only contingency. Even remembering how these memories re-emerged is a piecemeal process. B.S. requires of himself an absolute fidelity in recording this, and also makes demands upon the reader, to respect the interleavings, no, interweavings of these various threads, the interdependencies that he has embedded, to remember what has gone before. While rich enough to give play to many strands, the text is short enough to hold, yes, in memory, until complete (a more difficult task for its author).

What shall I say of these many strands? Nothing; that would be giving the game away. But friendship entails a lot.

(the above was written while between lawn and garden)


Blogger Colburn said...

Sounds Sebaldian, to apply an anachronistic word.

26/7/08 16:57  
Blogger nnyhav said...

Not to my way of thinking; Johnson doesn't maintain that sort of distance. (Come to think of it, Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival is sort of in between the two. But this is sparer.) Sorry if that didn't come across.

26/7/08 20:38  
Blogger mahendra singh said...

Sounds Hebdomerosian …

28/7/08 08:24  
Blogger J said...

Sounds like marketing, tho' of an eloquent sort.

21/8/08 11:33  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

I read The Unfortunates quite a while ago; but I have to admit I think the unbound pamphlets thing is in fact a gimmick, though possibly a good one. Johnson was a bit gimmicky in general--see also Albert Angelo with the holes in the pages--and for me the content didn't greatly extend beyond these external excitements. His best, from memory, was Christie Malry, though the film was unwatchable.

28/8/08 16:45  

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