Thursday, November 5, 2009

Memory unbound: the return of The Unfortunates

How do you tell a story? Be honest now. I don’t mean one you’ve thoroughly digested and developed, rehearsed and repeated and polished into a comfortable, familiar routine. I’m talking about the stories that leave residue in dim, neglected corners of your mind, that come to you in shards, associative, suggesting one thread and then another, driven by unpredictable emotional currents and the caprices of memory. Experience lies before us as a palimpsest. The traces of one moment hover within the traces of others. It’s perfectly sensible that when we tell our stories we try to impose order, through chronology, through causality. But art isn’t always sensible.

“But I know this city!” A man, our unnamed narrator, arrives in an unnamed English city to report on a soccer match. He’s a novelist, but he works as a sportswriter to pay the bills. He arrives, and his recognition of the city is accompanied by waves of memories, most of them about a dear, dead friend named Tony he needs still to remember, some of them about a woman he’s trying to forget. He strolls and looks around, he eats, he works, he departs on the evening train back to London. All the while those memories emerge of their own volition, some startlingly clear, some hazy, and dribbling forth. That’s the gist of The Unfortunates, yet it hardly conveys a sense of how this warm, melancholy, emotionally frank novel unfolds.

The sportswriter/novelist is actually B.S. Johnson, the friend Tony Tillinghast, a young academic who died of cancer. The Unfortunates, in keeping with Johnson’s personal credo regarding the imperative of truth in the modern novel, is basically what we can fairly call a memoir. But it’s a memoir in a box. First published in 1969, The Unfortunates is comprised of 27 unbound chapters, each ranging from one to a dozen pages. The first and last of these chapters are clearly marked as such, the rest are to be sequenced by the reader in whatever random order catches their fancy. The structure is not dissimilar to that of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which was first published in English only a few years previous, yet while Cortázar’s ingenious method of encouraging readers to “hop” through the text via a number of prescribed patterns provides a beguiling sense of immersing oneself into a particular world, Johnson’s approach is starker, and more tactile. Beautifully reprinted by New Directions ($31), with an invaluable introductory essay by novelist and Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe, The Unfortunates allows us a peculiar feeling of discovery. Opening the box and shuffling through the pages reminds me most of finding an old box of photos. First one catches your eye, then another. One you recognize, one you don’t. You see someone in one photo and then see them in another. Was that before or after? Where were they? Where was I when this was taken? Somewhere in all this is a story, but the story changes a little every time you try to reconstruct it.

Johnson was an outspoken disciple of Sterne, Joyce and Beckett—who offered a rare public endorsement of Johnson in return. He fiercely believed that the novel was irrelevant unless it pursued new forms and eschewed the entire notion of being fiction at all. To cast doubts upon the integrity and durability of Johnson’s strident literary polemic is perfectly reasonable. Fortunately, Johnson’s investment in formal strategies—a previous novel featured holes cut into the pages—were equaled if not bettered by the sheer eloquence of his prose, which, as it turns out, is actually pretty accessible. The form of The Unfortunates is in poetic alignment to its content. The tone of the narrator’s experience is matched by the randomness of his story’s delivery. Continuity is an illusion Johnson is unwilling to impose—it contradicts what for him most closely approximates emotional truth. It’s worth noting that in his introduction Coe speculates that Johnson’s unpopularity amongst contemporaneous literary circles may have had more to do with the confessional quality of his novels than with their innovative devices. They were far too vulnerable for the tastes of the moment.

“The waves of the past batter at the sea defenses of my sandy sanity, need to be safely pictured, still, romanticized, prettified.” “Visits run together, the trivial with the important, our life with his dying.” “I try to invest anything connected with him now with as much rightness, sanctity, almost, as I can, how the fact of his death influences every memory of everything connected to him.” Grief bleeds into the quotidian over and over in The Unfortunates. Commas proliferate, as though the narrator is trying not to digress to deeply into any number of blind alleys, but rather keep rippling forward. Strange gaps appear in the text as though whited-out, as though our narrator draws a blank, his pause present on the page as a finger of empty space. But the prose is free of abstraction, preferring to focus on the concrete, to offer a cascade of vivid details: Tony and the narrator posing for a photo, squinting in the sunlight, on the front lawn of Tony’s new house in a still-unfinished estate, a dying man set against a landscape of the brand new; numerous meals eaten in numerous places; a rented room where our narrator and Wendy—that woman who “ruined love” for years after—negotiated their lovemaking; a cemetery where the gravestones are marked only with numbers, or was it initials?; a friend of Tony’s who hung himself in his home, leaving carefully rendered diagrams of his suicide techniques for his wife to discover.

Johnson took his own life only four years after the publication of The Unfortunates, the fourth of his seven novels. He was 40, and reportedly in despair over his commercial failures and familial strife. I might suggest that this tragically early demise speaks to the perils of artistic convictions of the sort Johnson held so dear, but that feels pretty trite. Generalizations are a form of lying, so writes Johnson in the last chapter of The Unfortunates, so let’s just presume what drove the author to death was complicated and can only be sought in the details of his experience, the sort of details so lucidly evoked in this book, which with any luck will continue to find the audience Johnson so coveted.

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