Wednesday, 16 July 2008


Last night I read a book I've been wanting to get my hands on for a number of years. It's B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, the famous "book in a box". First published in 1969, it went out of print (like most of Johnson's other works), was then resurrected briefly by Picador in 1999 (to go OP again), and has now got a third lease of life thanks to New Directions in America.

The Unfortunates is a simple story told beautifully. A man (Johnson himself) goes to Nottingham in his role as a sports journalist to cover a soccer match. With time to kill before the match, he roams the city, remembering a friend who died from cancer, and the women with whom he was involved during the time he knew that friend.

To capture the non-linear nature of the narrator's thought processes, Johnson wrote the book as 27 chapters, with only the first and last to be read as normal. The other 25 chapters should be shuffled and read in random order. To assist this, each of the chapters is seperate, and contained in a box, rather than the whole book being bound normally.

New Directions, following the Picador printing, have done a beautiful job. The minimalist, illustration-free cover doesn't distract you from the joys within the book-shaped box. The interior of the box itself contains details of the book's history, the match report from the novel, and several quotes from Johnson's heroes Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne.

Here's the "book" as it first appears (click for much bigger versions of all of these images):

What you see when you open it:

The unbound pages and the box interior:

A close-up of the box interior:

The various unbound chapters on the loose:

A page with some small images from the original Secker & Warburg edition of 1969 is here.


Steerforth said...

Stunning! I will have to read it now.

JRSM said...

You'll not be disappointed (says he, hoping like hell you won't be disappointed!).

RichardB said...

It's a great book. Don't know if you're aware of Ann Quin - she was an acquaintance of Johnson's; also experimentally inclined, although not to such extremes as Johnson! - she's definitely worth checking out as well! Tripticks is my favourite work of Quin's.

JRSM said...

Ann Quin is new to me: I'll have to seek her out (another name on the big list!). Thanks for the recommendation, Mr B.

John Self said...

I'm going to be the dissenter here. I love the idea and execution of The Unfortunates, but I didn't enjoy the story at all really. Though I realise that it was kind of Johnson's point that memory in the novel comes out randomly and in a disorderly way, it seemed to me a bit of a cop-out that he used this to justify telling a story which had no structure and where the random placing of chapters really didn't matter - even though, as I say, that was the point. It's my least favourite of the Johnsons I've read, which I think is all of them except Trawl, Travelling People and See the Old Lady Decently.

I recall reading Felipe Alfau's Locos and Milorad Pavic's Landscape Painted with Tea in my younger and more vulnerable years, both of which had a similar conceit of read-the-chapters-any-way-you-like, but presented in normal book format. Can't remember a damn thing about either of them though. And there was a story in a recent issues of McSweeney's which was published as a set of playing cards which you could shuffle and read in any order. Like all McSweeney's issues, I wallowed in its presentation without actually reading any of it. (It was the issue with the free comb...)

JRSM said...

I can see what you mean, but I really did enjoy it. The only other Johnson I've read is 'Christie Malry...', which I also enjoyed, but not as much. In fact, given what I've read of Johnson's unreasonably bonkers theories of what fiction/novels should and shouldn't be (most especially the idea that you should only write about your own direct experiences), I'm susprised just how much I liked these two books.

Sam said...

Thanks for the excellent photos.

I don't part ways with Mr. Self very often, but I am enjoying this book immensely. In fact at this point I am rationing the chapters so I don't complete the book too quickly.

I admired Malry and it made me laugh, but I think I prefer the works that are closer to Johnson's life. Albert Angelo was my favorite prior to The Unfortunates.

JRSM said...

I'm with you, Sam. And there'll be some Walser on this blog soon, with any luck!

JV said...

I second the Ann Quin recommendation, Tripticks is the most experimental (and visually interesting), though she frequently used lists and structural elements (like her obsession with threes) that provide a sort of architecture within her works. Berg has a bit of a true crime edge to it (the opening goes: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . ."). I love her novel Three. Dalkey Archive publishes her work in the states. A great press (with uneven book design though).

JRSM said...

Thanks for that, JV: I'm glad you reminded me of Quin, as I still haven't sought her out.I know what you mean about Dalkey, BUT they have changed recently--see the post elsewhere here about their new direction (go to Dalkey Archive in the "index").