The great English experimental writer B.S. Johnson would have been 80 this year. He died – at his own hand – 40 years ago, leaving behind a small but hugely influential body of work, including seven works of fiction, a memoir, and a scattering of playlets and journalism.
His best-known, if not most-read, piece of work is The Unfortunates – the famous “book in a box” of 1969, which comprises 26 chapters, each separately bound. One is marked “First” and the other “Last”; the reader is left to decide in which order to read those between. I was obsessed with the idea of this book when I first read about it (probably mentioned in an interview by novelist Jonathan Coe, who published a biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, in 2004) and delighted when Picador reissued it in the late 1990s. In the UK, formally experimental fiction largely went underground after the 1960s, with the notable exception of the works of Samuel Beckett and Alasdair Gray. Johnson’s unceasing questioning of what the novel could be represents one of the last times a mainstream author would devote his corpus to pushing at the bounds of what constitutes the novel.
For Trawl, a novel set aboard a trawler and likely the most successful any text will ever be at communicating the feeling of sea-sickness, Johnson undertook the voyager himself and, it seems, more or less transcribed his experiences
The novels – the first published in 1963, the last posthumously in 1975 – aren’t just formally inventive, but groundbreaking in their intermingling of fact and fiction. House Mother Normal tells a story of misdeeds in an old people’s home from the viewpoints of eight different characters suffering from various forms of mental disorder, and is arranged on the page in a formally unique way that ensures the reader always knows – despite the difficulty the character might have in narrating events – what is going on. For Trawl, a novel set aboard a trawler and likely the most successful any text will ever be at communicating the feeling of sea-sickness, Johnson undertook the voyage himself and, it seems, more or less transcribed his experiences. The Unfortunates recounts the story of a narrator who can be construed as Johnson, attending a football match he is to report on for a newspaper, and accompanied by a friend who later dies – much of it seeming to be directly autobiographical. The opposing forces of total candour and willed formal experimentation balance one another, or cancel one another out. And while Albert Angelo is on the one hand textbook experimental stuff, diving in and out of the first- and third-person, it’s also clearly autobiographical, relating Johnson’s own experiences as a teacher, which one can safely deduce weren’t happy ones. (This is not to say Johnson’s books aren’t funny, albeit the humour rather mordant.) His pupils get a voice too, written in that implausibly allusive and oblique language bright writers give to bright children: “He walks like a fiery elephant”, runs one vivid report on their teacher, the source of Coe’s title for his Johnson biography, which won the 2005 Samuel Johnson prize and is partly responsible for a continuing, albeit somewhat low-key interest, in the author. Among other admirers are musician Aidan Moffat, who recorded a version of Johnson’s poem “The Poet Holds his Future in His Hand” (“the one about his penis”, notes Moffat, whose work shares both a very Johnsonian fascination with the scabrous and a way with the delicate, precise observation) to mark what would have been the author’s 80th birthday.
Five of Johnson’s novels are commonly available in the UK (four recently reissued in rather garish covers by Picador), with the remaining two – his first and last books, somehow fittingly – remain mysteriously out of print. Coe has also co-edited a new collection of the author’s miscellaneous writings, including his autobiography, Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, a title which also seems jokey – until one remembers Johnson only ever was rather young. Purposely experimental fiction of the book-in-a-box variety seems rather quaint now, but the fact these books have never been quite forgotten over the last four decades suggests there’s still an element of the reading public open to these experiments. You rather wish Johnson could have employed some device like the hole cut in the pages of Albert Angelo that “spoils” a plot development that’s still some pages ahead to have seen that his books remain in favour four decades after his death. Maybe it wouldn’t have made much difference to him: those short films he made are available on DVD under the caustic, sad title that might have been both Johnson’s admonition to himself, as a way to boost his mood: You’re Human Like the Rest of Them. C