No More Lying: a Primer on the Novels of B.S. Johnson

July 16, 2010 | 1 11 min read

1. No (easy) place to turn
coverThere already exists a book called Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. Painstakingly written over a decade by esteemed novelist Jonathan Coe, it reconstructs and examines the working and personal lives of this complex, troubled creator of poetry, novels, stories, film, theater. Rich with detail and inventiveness, it screams, whatever the subject’s remaining loose ends, “finality.”By its very existence, it dares one — taunts one — to write a single further word about Bryan Stanley Johnson.

Yet here we are. Even if Coe’s book were the greatest literary biography ever written — and having just finished it moments ago, I can assure you that it’s in the running — asking somebody to tuck into a nearly 500-page tome about on a still-obscure English experimentalist remains a tall order. Coe notes several times that Johnson himself bristled at the E-word, feeling it not only marginalized his work but missed its point besides. But for good or ill, it’s how history has anointed him, and it’s the best concise description we have. Whether with form, content, sensibility, or even printing processes, Johnson performed literary experiments. The difference from so many others’ literary experiments? Johnson’s usually succeeded.

While Like a Fiery Elephant might be daunting in its scope, then, Johnson’s novels themselves might be daunting in their unconventionality (not to mention the rarity and consequently forbidding price of a few of them). Where, then, should a curious reader stuck between this rock and this hard place turn? What will lessen the confusion rather than worsen it? Leaving aside issues of avant-garde importance, formal soil-tilling, and the man’s turbulent life/grim death, why should the average novel-reader take on B.S. Johnson’s? In those questions lies the the aim of this primer.

2. Against the what-happened-next brigade
I myself came relatively late to B.S. Johnson’s party. Nick Hornby gave his ill-fated colleague a mention in one if the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns he writes in the Believer. The context was Hornby’s review of the aforementioned biography by his other, seemingly less ill-fated brother in U.K. letters. I speak with some confidence about Coe’s fate, because Like a Fiery Elephant alone has won greater sales and accolades than his subject’s entire oeuvre put together. There are thus more people, possibly many more, who have read about B.S. Johnson than have read B.S. Johnson.

Count no less a man of letters than Hornby in that group. He admitted that, while gripped by Johnson’s story, he’d never felt the compulsion to actually read his books. Johnson himself would perhaps have taken perverse pleasure in this, since it clusters him with two of his idols, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. All three seem to draw more engagement on the meta level than the regular one, though the earlier men attained the popularity that Johnson, increasingly embittered through his short career, felt he was denied.

More to the point, Joyce, Beckett and Johnson all tried to move the novel forward, to shove it out of the 19th-century ditch its spinning wheels seemed only to dig deeper. Johnson was particularly outspoken about this, in his prime evidently never having missed an opportunity to condemn the dull complacency of his English contemporaries. To tell a story, he thought (and often said), was to tell a lie, to futilely pretend away the chaos of modern existence and pander to humanity’s base, vulgar desire to find out what happened next. He thought the author’s personal experience the only “honest” material for novels, material he believed would dictate its own most suitable form.

Though they get conflated, Johnson’s novelistic Weltanschauung has two planks. The first is that the novelistic form has ossified, thus preventing closer alignment with substance. The second is that fiction is by its very nature dishonest, and to that extent immoral. While the latter seems a function of personal ethical cosmology and is thus difficult to comment on, the former rings a little true. It’s a distant ring, but a lingering, plaintive one nonetheless; once you’ve heard it, it doesn’t fade. The suspicion that he may well be at least half-right brought me to B.S. Johnson’s work.

coverBut Hornby didn’t buy Johnson’s package, even in part. Comparing Johnson and his quest to separate himself from the “what-happened-next brigade” to the school inspector in Hard Times, he writes, “Like communists and fascists, Johnson and the dismal inspector wander off in opposite directions, only to discover that the world is round. I’m glad that they both lost cultural Cold War.” But I’ve felt so often that novels do still, in the main, clutch for dear life to the forms of plodding, pandering relics. I’ve wondered if our compulsion to find out the next step in some made-up causal chain at least a little juvenile, a little squirrely, a little intellectually atrophic. Haven’t you?

3. Albert Angelo
coverIt’s a rare shelf that would offer all of Johnson’s novels side-by side. But if you came across one, you’d notice that none of the books are particularly thick. Johnson never put out a Ulysses. Chalk one point, then, in the “accessibility” column; people read embossed-cover airport novels thrice the length of the average Johnson novel. Indeed, the author strove to (and once believed he could) win the hearts and minds of that very mainstream. He didn’t, but sitting down with a brisk, blackly hilarious book like Albert Angelo makes you think that it couldn’t have been the work’s fault.

Break out the chalk again and scrape it under the “funny” heading. I’m the first to claim that some, if not most literary modernists really did have senses of humor, but Johnson’s comes through so much more plainly. It feels like a difference not just in degree but in kind. When Joyce and Beckett crack an in-work joke, it’s half the time funny in the same way that an orchestra’s unconventional chord change might be considered funny. That is to say, they’re insider funny; sometimes way insider funny. Freighting his protagonist Albert with a series of dreary substitute teaching jobs, Johnson indulges in broader humor. “Well, Jeanette Parsons and Lily Stanley,” goes one of Albert’s many admonishments, “I shall report this affair to the Headmaster.” “Who will do fuck-all about it,” silently says his brain.

Johnson makes these lines not just narratively but textually simultaneous by bisecting the page, the spoken words on the left and the unspoken on the right. This is but one of the book’s unusual formal techniques, each of which Johnson judged most effective to express the events they do. Certainly, it would be hard to top that double-column in the classroom. Others, like the odd punctuation marks that bracket physical descriptions or the theatrical script format that pops up, hold some fascination but aren’t clearly the best tool for the job. (Then again, they aren’t clearly not the best tool for the job.)

But if you already knew the name B.S. Johnson when you started reading this, you more than likely knew Albert Angelo as “the book with the holes in the pages,” as I did, before I read it. I assumed the thing would be literary Swiss cheese, but no; there’s only one hole in the book — well, two, to be precise, but they’re cut in the same position on adjacent pages. This enables the reader to see five pages ahead to a fragment about the violent death of Christopher Marlowe, the 16th-century dramatist with whom Johnson identified since encountering his work early in life. So parallel did he feel to Marlowe that he became convinced that he, too, would die at 29, by the sort of stabbing seen through Albert Angelo’s hole or otherwise. Though the implicit statement about prophecy is perhaps interesting, I can’t entirely dismiss the book’s contemporary reviewers who deemed the cutouts gimmicky.

More important is Albert Angelo’s final section, titled “Disintegration”, in which Johnson shatters the facade he’s built over the past 161 pages. A primal scream sweeps away the construction of Albert, his home in London’s Angel district (hence the title), and his demoralizing day job replacing for a teacher who put himself out of his Sisyphean educational misery: “OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING!” The remainder of the novel, which dissolves into punctuation-free a-grammaticality before gradually reconstructing itself, serves up Johnson’s statement of purpose: no more of this roman à clef nonsense. No more stand-ins. No more invention. No more objective correlatives. No more lying.

4. The Unfortunates
Albert Angelo, Johnson’s second novel (we’ll get to the first later), was published in 1964. Five years later, his fourth (we’ll get to the third later) would offer a production hook so radical as to make any number of cuttings-out seem conventional. This is the infamous “book in a box,” so called because it had to ship in one. How else to package not a sheaf of bound pages, put a pile of 27 individually stapled pamphlets, essentially?

Johnson’s idea here was to emulate the all-over-the-place non-linearity of human memory. We don’t actually recall our lives as narratives, he thought, so why dishonestly write about them as if we did? Why not write the fragments, then offer them to the reader as fragments, rather than committing the fraud of lining them up in a rigid, linear sequence? Calling upon two episodes of his life, one drearily routine and another prolonged and tragic, Johnson combines and reconstituted them in a way that lets you read them — and thus experience them for yourself — in any order your shuffling happens to produce.

coverFor a time, Johnson paid the bills with sports reporting gigs. (As Coe revealed, paying the bills was even more of a burden for Johnson than for most writers, morphing from inconvenience into unyielding existential assault.) The Unfortunates chronicles, in its distinctive manner, his internal monologue during one such job. Sent to write up a distant football match he finds himself in Nottingham, the city where his best friend died of cancer. This flood of memories mixes with his concrete journey through the streets, his meals, his journalistic observation of the unremarkable game, and his composition and (literal) phoning-in of his copy.

The most credible objection to Johnson’s chosen form here is that even the most linear novels wind up, by way of our mental food processor, a jumble of discrete moments, images, turns of phrase. Isn’t writing it that way in the first place tantamount to serving a fine meal as a decomposed slurry because that’s how it winds up when we’ve digested it? Yet this is not an objection I share. It wouldn’t work if every story were told in the same way, but it works hauntingly well as an exception. Something about the task of reading the novel made it, at least for me, a quietly epic, dizzyingly elegiac experience. Now, some would say it’s just dizzying, but were I pressed to name Johnson’s masterpiece, The Unfortunates would be it.

5. House Mother Normal
cover1971 brought an apparent breach of the strict Johnsonian code. Not only is House Mother Normal not autobiography as its predecessors were, it comprises the internal monologues of characters whose condition Johnson could not possibly have experienced. This is a novel narrated almost entirely by the aged, the infirm, the disoriented, the senile, the dying. Its author never reached the age of even its youngest player. It never leaves the confines of a rest home; in fact, it never leaves the confines of one hour in that rest home.

Each of first eight chapters, all of them exactly 21 pages, interprets this hour through the mind of one of the home’s residents. The first, 74-year-old Sarah Lamson, is perfectly lucid, if creaky; the last, moribund 94-year-old Rosetta Stanton, thinks mainly in individual Welsh words scattered haphazardly across the page. Between them lies a continuum of mental and physical decrepitude, each brain and body worse than the last. This comes through not just qualitatively in Johnson’s unexpectedly protean prose — this was a man, recall, who claimed to write only himself — but quantitatively as well, in a set of statistics preceding each oldster’s chapter. The tabletop role-playing games that would appear later in the decade (and their video game descendants) have rendered readings like “sight 30%” and “movement 85%” old hat, but they were no doubt strikingly alien at the time.

Johnson reportedly feared decay and death, and boy, does it show in House Mother Normal. Yet scarier still, in its way, is his depiction of the titular house mother, the cruel, self-regarding overseer of this aged bunch. Her perception of the hour comes as the final chapter, and it does much to clarify what the previous eight have only partially described. The house mother uses her charges as free labor in some sort of bottle-washing operation, forces them to play a game involving a giftwrapped dog turd, and finally — I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around this bit — demands they all watch as she employs that same loyal pooch for, er, cunnilingual purposes.

I fear that Johnson, who for all his writerly virtues had an unpleasant didactic streak, intended this: we consider these old folks, their faculties ever-disintegrating faculties, “abnormal.” But look how this (relatively) young woman behaves! Who’s normal now? I couldn’t bring myself to believe this was Johnson’s aim, except that he all but states it in Like a Fiery Elephant’s relevant quotes. But can’t we overlook it for technical virtuosity? Not only does Johnson orchestrate the text so that each 21-page section covers the same hour, he has each line of every character’s chapter correspond to the same moment. Doesn’t exactly write itself, does it?

6. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry
coverJohnson’s last widely available novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, turns out to be his most accessible by a decent stretch, though Albert Angelo isn’t too terribly far behind. Published in 1973, the writer’s last year alive, it stars a “simple” young man who, aggrieved by his entry-level bank job (“this atmosphere was acrid with frustration, boredom and jealousy, black with acrimony, pettiness and bureaucracy”) and the countless indignities inflicted by society in general, starts keeping score.

In the “aggravation” column of Christie Malry’s own double-entry are such items as “Injury to left knee at school,” “General diminution of Christie’s life caused by advertising,” and “Socialism not given a chance.” In the “recompense” column, he takes his revenge: ”General removal of small items of stationery,” “Aldwych Theatre bomb hoax,” “Death of 20,479 innocent west Londoners.” The book has been called an examination of the terrorist’s mindset, not without good cause: working within a self-serving framework that with each step seems basically logical, Christie works his way from part-time petty vandal to would-be modern-day Guy Fawkes.

Those who read Johnson’s other novels first will be surprised by how much like a “regular” British comic novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry feels. It bears some of the goofiness of the genre’s lightest offerings: “It did not take him long to realise he had not been born into money,” Johnson writes, “and that the course most likely to benefit him would be to place himself next to the money, or at least next to those who were making it. He therefore decided that he should become a bank employee. I did tell you Christie was a simple person.”

But Johnson nevertheless manages to smuggle no small volume of metafictional conceits into these 20,000-ish words. The narrator and all the characters know full well that this is a novel, and they don’t hesitate to discuss that fact. In one late chapter, Christie and the narrator — who is, naturally, B.S. Johnson himself — discuss how to end the story. “The novel should now try to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short,” Christie asserts. “I could hardly have expressed it better myself,” Johnson replies. This goes down with startling smoothness, though Brechtian fourth-wall-breaking has, I suppose, always played better with the general public when couched in comedy. That Christie Malry’s comedy is charcoal black — to put it mildly — makes little difference.

7. The books that are out of print, U.K. only, cost $200 or some combination thereof

Three of Johnson’s novels, all of which sound at least intriguing as the more or less available ones, are tricky to come by. Travelling People, his first and longest published effort, is by all accounts an entertainingly inventive fictionalization of the author’s youthful experiences working at a country club and trying to make it with a particularly attractive co-worker. But by Johnson’s own diktat, it hasn’t had a printing since 1963. Because of what he came to consider its immoral mixture of real life and invention, he ultimately branded it a “disaster.”

coverThe reason copies of 1968’s Trawl are still scarce enough to command a price of nearly $150 on the open market is unclear, since Johnson didn’t disown it. You can find it as one-third of something called The B.S. Johnson Omnibus, but the lack of a reprint remains a mystery. The backstory of its creation would be enough to raise anyone’s curiosity: feeling the need to get away and confront his innermost emotional and psychological depths, Johnson secured a place on a fishing boat. He rode queasily along for three weeks, mentally composing the material for a lengthy, all-revealing trawl, as it were, of his own psyche. The result is Johnson’s most probing but least (to use Geoff Dyer’s term) novelly novel.

Intended as the opener of a trilogy, See the Old Lady Decently would have been followed by two volumes with titles to complete the sentence, Buried, Although and Amongst those Left are You. Johnson decided to make what he called his “Matrix trilogy” his most ambitious project ever, an epic chronicle of the rise, decline, and fall of two “old ladies”: both his recently deceased mother and nothing less grand than England itself. Despite his ostensibly forward-looking literary tendencies, he was nonetheless a nostalgic man who romanticized the working-class 1950s experience while loathing the hippified late-60s/early-70s milieu by which he found himself surrounded. Some of his peers would have pejoratively labeled him retrograde. Would the Matrices have explained his position to their satisfaction?

8. Was it our fault?
We’ll never know, since, swarmed by professional, familial, and artistic troubles, Johnson took his own life at the age of 40, two books in the trilogy still to go. Having displayed a host of paranoid, depressive tendencies since youth — and this is something Jonathan Coe describes much, much more engagingly than I ever will — Johnson came to his end in perhaps the only way that he could have: on precisely his own terms.

But despite whatever dark delusions, self-inflicted marginalization, or chemical imbalance he suffered in isolation, part of me still indicts the rest of humanity. We could have done better by B.S. Johnson, couldn’t we? For all the tendencies he indulged toward insecure dogmatism and the biting of the hands that fed him, he clearly had the goods. He pointed the way forward for fiction at least as often as he plowed into dead ends. When literary people didn’t listen to him then, it was as much their loss as it is ours when we don’t read him now. No matter how much they succeed or don’t, in commercial or artistic terms, we now need more, not fewer, books in boxes. More psychology-reflecting typesetting. More trawling of the depths. More holes in the pages. More double-entries.

, in addition to his journalistic and blogging pursuits, produces video and sound art and hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas.