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B. S. Johnson: The Unfortunates

Metafiction looked like being fashionable when Johnson was writing but it never really took off. Think of Cortázar‘s Rayuela (Hopscotch), where you did not read the book in the order it was published but jumped to random chapters. Johnson takes this idea one stage further. The book is divided into chapters but each chapter is published in a separate binding. You are told which is the first and which is the last and the rest you read in any order you want. An interesting idea which does not really come off. Apparently there was a problem with the Hungarian version where they could not afford to publish in that manner and it was published, conventionally, as one book, meaning that Hungarian readers were stuck with the order selected by the publisher, unless they showed a bit of creativity. Probably did not matter.

There is a plot to this book. The book is essentially about Johnson’s friendship with Tony, a graduate student who, we learn early on, is already dead (so there is no suspense lost reading out of order). There are various sub-stories, including Johnson’s relationship with Wendy (who dumps him), his career as a football reporter (which, Proust-like, sets him off on his memories of Tony as he travels to Nottingham to report on a football match, a city he has not visited since he met Tony there) and his views on English urban architecture. Most of the chapters are merely vignettes – on Tony, Johnson’s relationship with Tony, Tony’s encroaching cancer and death and, of course on football, Wendy and urban architecture. Johnson writes well on all topics and the novel is certainly enjoyable but the metafictional approach seems unnecessary and adds nothing. Maybe next time I’ll read it in a different order but I suspect that it will change nothing.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Panther