Four novels by the sixties avant-garde novelist B.S. Johnson (Books acquired the first week of May, 2021)

I think the first time I heard of the British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson was some time around 2008 or so, when New Directions republished his “book in a box,” The Unfortunates (1969). I thought it sounded like a cool but maybe gimmicky idea at the time, and then Johnson dropped off my radar until more recently. I started to see his name pop up when I’d search out more information about the British avant-garde novelist Ann Quin, whose novel Berg I consider perfect.

So I asked around and ended up finding an online copy of Picador’s omnibus reissue of three of Johnson’s novels: Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), and House Mother Normal (1971). I also ordered Johnson’s penultimate novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) (as well as a copy of The Unfortunates which has yet to arrive).

I tucked into the omnibus last week, starting with Albert Angelo, which I think is the superior of the three novels the edition collects (I’ve still got a final third of Trawl to go, but I can’t see it turning a corner). AA is an experimental pastiche, a bildungsroman that ironizes the künstlerroman. Our hero Albie, trained as an architect, makes his so-called living as a substitute teacher in some of London’s rougher schools. His narrative is an assemblage of stream-of-consciousness, dramatic dialogues, advertisements, and other rhetorical techniques—including literally cutting out parts of a few pages.

Albie is angry and witty and generally good company throughout the brief novel. Albert Angelo will resonate with teachers who remember those rough first years—sympathy with the students, anger at the system, but also a realization that they are in a kind of battle to earn the respect of their pupils. (Near the end of the novel, we get a litany of student essays that Albie has assigned. The subject: Albie himself. Student reviews are, for the most part, scathing.) Johnson’s assemblage is impressive, energetic, and still feels fresh over fifty years later.

House Mother Normal is also a lively novel, with an energy we might not expect in a novel subtitled A Geriatric Comedy. The novel takes place over a few hours in a single day in a nursing homes, telling the same “narrative” from the viewpoint of eight residents—as well as the titular house mother. Each resident (and the house mother) gets twenty-one pages to relate their version of the days events. Or, more accurately, we dwell in their consciousness for those twenty-one pages. Some residents are of clearer minds than others, but together, they offer a fragmented minor Sadean saga that is both abject and occasionally moving.

Trawl is a more “traditional” novel, at least in the modernist sense. Unlike House Mother Normal and Albert AngeloTrawl takes a straightforward, stream-of-consciousness first-person tack, detailing three weeks the narrator—a version of Johnson himself—spent on a deep-sea trawler in the Barents Sea. It’s a sort of memoir, loosely figured around the various women that the narrator has successfully or unsuccessfully bedded, with dips into his childhood billeted away from his London family in World War II. In between, we get snapshots of life on the trawler. The unifying theme of the book is shame, paralleled with the narrator’s desire to create a work of Great Art. The narrator peppers his memoir with interjections that the whole thing is boring, worthless, and meaningless. Like I mentioned above, I haven’t gotten to the end of Trawl, but it became a slog about a third of the way in. Johnson’s narrator hems and haws, hedges and defers—and comments on his hemming and hawing. It seems to approach the confessional style of American poetry in the l950s and 1960s without revealing too much. I don’t know. There’s something guarded about it, even as it tries to be a naked affair. I’m hoping I like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry more. Here’s publisher New Direction’s blurb:

In a brief but productive career, B.S. Johnson (1933-73) was recognized as the most original of the English experimental writers of his generation. Combining a bellicose avant-gardism with pointed social concerns, he won the praise of critics and fellow writers as well as a readership not usually gained by a literary maverick. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is Johnson’s most broadly humorous book, though as readers will discover, his humor has a bite. Christie is a simple man. His job in a bank puts him next to but not in possession of money. He encounters the principles of Double-Entry Bookkeeping and adapts them in his own dramatic fashion to settle his account with society. Under the column headed “Aggravation” for offenses received from society (the unpleasantness of the bank manager is the first on an ever-growing list), debit Christie; under “Recompense,” for offenses given back (scratching the façade of an office block), credit Christie. All accounts are to be settled in full, and they are — in the most alarming way.

1 thought on “Four novels by the sixties avant-garde novelist B.S. Johnson (Books acquired the first week of May, 2021)”

  1. Christie Malry is great fun – I think it’s the strongest of the ones I’ve read by him, though I liked Albert Angelo a fair amount too. House Mother Normal was a bit weaker but still interesting. The Unfortunates is very different from the others and I’ve never been able to get into it.

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