You know me, I’m never one to miss out on a gimmick. I’d wanted to read The Unfortunates from the moment I knew it existed. It just sounded so interesting. So, I got myself a copy and decided it was the perfect thing to read for this month’s Spell the Month challenge. I mean, I had to do something to help me with August’s double U nonsense. It gave me a good excuse to read it and was a short read. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend much time last weekend reading it and it’s not the kind of book that I wanted to transport. So, it took longer to read than I expected. Thankfully, I finished it just in time for this review.
There are a whopping 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 different ways to read B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates. So, of course, I decided to give it a go. His unconventional ‘book in a box’ is one of the often-overlooked literary experiments of the late 60s. Instead of appearing in a traditional bound format, the story is presented as 27 separate sections all placed in a box. Aside from the first and last parts, the rest can be read in any order the reader wishes. You can choose to go with the order that you got it in or you can shuffle to your heart’s content. I decided not to mess with fate and just read straight out of the box.
But “what is the point of this?” you might be asking. The Unfortunates is Johnson’s attempt to mimic the random way that our memories work. The novel opens with a journalist returning to a city he knows pretty well. He’s on his way to watch and report on a football match but, as he walks through the familiar streets, he begins to remember the people from his past. Specifically, his old friend who died of cancer and the former lover who spurned him in his youth. The sites and locations that he revisits take him back to times gone by and we get to read his attempts to piece together the memories that have already started to fade.
As an experiment, I think this really works. The idea of picking sections at random is fun and it does provide a very different type of reading experience. On my readthrough, we got to the football match quite quickly, which meant that there were quite a few sections later on talking about making his way there. This disconnected and almost hazy approach to storytelling is certainly thought-provoking. As a way to replicate that idea of association and human memory, I think the format really works. As an experiment into storytelling, I think it’s successful. But, is it enjoyable? Does it need to be enjoyable? After all, as we know, the story is autobiographical, so we’re dealing with Johnson’s real memories about real people. This isn’t a fictional tale that is meant to titillate but a way to present true feelings.
Not that reality can’t be entertaining but it certainly explains the simplistic approach to the narrative. I think the aspect of the book that I really struggled with was the narrative. It was slightly brusque and very to-the-point. It lacks any real flourish or lyrical aspect because that’s not the purpose. This is about transposing memories onto the page. It is about expressing the truth. It has more of a journalistic quality to the writing, which I often struggled to connect with. Which isn’t to say that Johnson isn’t a great writer. The way that he crafts his tale and interweaves the various strands is wonderful. Each memory is fragmented and there are gaps within the narrative. The narrator is constantly questioning facts and admitting to gaps in his memory. There is a lot of complexity here but it all comes together so easily and in such a readable way.
An easy read but a difficult book to review. You can appreciate and enjoy what Johnson is trying to achieve. You can also appreciate and enjoy the way he approaches the act of writing. You get a real sense of the limits of human memory as well as its importance. You can also appreciate and enjoy the fact that Johnson is exploring not just the idea of memory but of truth and human existence. In the end, memories are all we end up having but, over time, we cannot trust those memories to reminisce. If we are our memory and, at the same time, are also someone else’s memory, then what do we become when those memories start to fade? What do the people we have lost or left behind become? This simple book in a box is sure to make you question everything. It’s the kind of reading experience that demands multiple readthroughs. Thankfully, you’ll have plenty of ways to try going through it.