Monday, 22 April 2013

Book Review: The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates by B S Johnson

I was at a gig the other week, seeing Eels at Rock City who are one of the first bands that I remember buying a record by.  I was reminiscing to my friend about the day that I still distinctly remember of going to buy the CD in Coulsdon (where I grew up) on the Monday after school - I had five one pound coins in my wallet and I know that I could get a further £5 from the cash machine outside the TSB next door to the Woolworths.  Two now defunct brand names you won't find on our high streets any more.  Thanks to my somewhat unusual method of keeping my CDs not in either alphabetical order nor chronological order of release (pace, High Fidelity) but in chronological order of purchase I know that this is the thirteenth album that I ever bought.  

Because I still love the physicality of CDs and vinyl almost as much as I love the printed word, and in a slightly-late and somewhat off-kilter tribute to Record Store Day I thought I'd do a book review of a novel that celebrates the physical form in a word of Kindles and downloads.  

The other reminiscence I've been indulging in a lot at the moment is, of course, for my trip to America.  Being back in the daily grind of WorkOne and WorkTwo (see the footnote here).  I think the best memories in some ways are for the travel rather than the arriving: in particular for the day I spent driving, flying and travelling by train in California.  

I'm currently reading and hugely enjoying a book that celebrates the physical form par-excellence, is a semi-autobiographical reminiscence and is set in Nottingham.  What's not to like!  B S Johnson wasn't ever a household name in his lifetime and certainly isn't now but appears to be having something of a renaissance  especially around this novel in particular.  

The novel's main conceit is that it can be read in any order through the chapters being entirely loose in the binding.  The first and last chapters are marked as such but the others can be shuffled and read in whatever order you desire.  

The power of the reminiscence and the fading or growing of memories and re-ordering of them in our minds is of course a hugely powerful force in the novel and is enhanced by the pseudo-random order of the chapters.  Some of the chapters are only a page long, others a couple of dozen.  The action centres around a football match in an unnamed Midlands city which is usually understood to be Nottingham and I enjoyed in particular trying to place some of the locations identified - or spotting how things have changed in the forty or so years since the novel's setting.  Johnson was a jobbing football journalist and so spent a lot of time bouncing around the country to different cities reporting on different games.  The merging of different cities and locations is one that has become familiar for me as the memories of my America trip start to fade a little: "But I know this city!  This green ticket-hall, the long office half-rounded at its ends, that ironic clerestory, brown glazed tiles, green below, the same, the decorative hammerbeams supporting nothing, above, of course!  I know this city!  How did I not realise when he said, Go and do City this week, that it was this city?".  The match and its reporting are mixed up with stories of Tony, the narrator's dead friend and includes flashbacks (or are they not flashbacks, I'm just reading it in the "wrong" order?) to their times together.  

(Incidentally, I like the way that 'City' = The football team from a particular city but 'city' = the conurbation itself.  I always laugh when people at work talk about football from the weekend and refer to 'City' or 'County' or 'United' and expect you know what they're talking about.  This is, of course, just an excuse to link to my favourite 'IT Crowd' episode of all time, "Are We Not Men", couple of good clips here if you've not got time for the full episode at the first link)

The non-linear narrative of The Unfortunates is all part of the experience of reading the novel but it does make for a challenging read - there are lots of moments when it isn't at all clear what is going on.  I'm naturally going to struggle to give clear page numbers or references to the quotes below, but give the book a go and you'll find them in time...

Jonathan Coe has written a very helpful introduction to the edition I have which includes the following passage: "So, what exactly was taking place on 'the inside of his skull' as Johnson went about the task of reporting his football match that Saturday afternoon?  Memories of Tony were unfolding, certainly, but not in a structured, linear way, and they were interrupted at random by the action on the pitch and his attempts to start writing his match report.  It was this randomness, this lack of structure in the way we remember things and receive imrpessions that Johnson wanted to record with absolute fidelity.  But randomness, he realised, is 'directly in conflict with the technological fact of the bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the material'.  His solution, as always, was simple and radical: the pages of The Unfortunates should not be bound at all".  

"Always, at the start of each match, the excitement, often the only moment of excitement, that this might be the ONE match, the match in which someone betters Payne's ten goals, where Hughie Gallacher after being floored nods one in while sitting down, where the extraordinary happens, something that makes it stand out, the match one remembers and talks about for years afterwards, the rest of one's life.  The one moment, the one match.  A new beginning, is it?".  The inevitable bathos that follows this passage is no less crushing for its predictability: "But already I suspect the worst of these two sides, now as they kick off I doubt they can play well enough to make this a memorable match...".  I'm no football fan so don't know if this is an accurate representation of what it can feel like at the start of a game but I recognise the pain of anticipate as encapsulated in the John Cleese line in Clockwise, "I can cope with the despair, but it's the hope that kills me".  

"June rang on the Saturday, was it, or the Thursday before, no, quite late, we had already arranged to go, though what arrangements could we have needed to make, saying that there was no need for us to come down, on Sunday, for he had died that evening, had not recovered consciousness that morning from his sleep. but previously there has been the opposite of a relapse, three days when his mind has been virtually normal, for which she had been grateful, June, it had seemed like a miracle, though he still could not move, his mind had come back and they had talked very seriously about everything, for the first time had talked about death".  This is one of the very short chapters: that passage is the totality of that chapter.  

"Time!  It's after two!  I must get to the ground then, how my mind has taken off.  Now, how to get to the ground, yes, always take a taxi in a strange city, no, not that again, in any case I have not seen any taxis here, except at the station and that's a long way away, but I did see buses with boards up for the ground at the Council House square, yes, and I ought to be able to find my way back there, yes, down there, through this alley, or crack, as some would call it, a paved alleyway, wet, it must have rained while I was having lunch, slightly, or they have washed it down no, what irrelevant absurdities I find myself thinking, just, the pavement is wet, I must take appropriate care not to slip as I descend, past shoppers, still at it, this is their great day, of course, wives and daughters arm-in-arm after camiknickers, matching, no doubt, twinsets, similar gallivanting.  Radio shops, now no doubt called television shops, the half-dozen sets going, different programmes, show-jumping and swimming, those apologies for sport on television, while the only sport most people want to watch is soccer, the only real sport, the best, the pathetic ends they go to on Saturday afternoons to cover up the fact that they are not showing football".  Later in this chapter (one of the longer ones) we get to see some of the writing of the match report the narrator is filing - a further post-modern trope (writing about writing: metafiction) in this fascinating book.  

This isn't a comforting read; it's challenging in both form and content.  But it's one that I highly recommend giving a go.  

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