What is a book? I’m pretty sure you know what a book is – but I’m not sure how long the prevailing definition will hold. I’m not even thinking here of reading books on a screen or audiobooks. I am thinking about the format of the book, no matter what medium delivers it.
The book that set me down this path is called The Unfortunates. It was written in 1969. It is an experimental “book in a box” by English author B. S. Johnson, but it was only published in 2008.
It has 27 chapters but they are unbound, with only a first and last chapter specified, and you can read the other 25 in any order.
Quick plot summary: The story tells us about a sportswriter who travels to a town to report on a soccer match only to discover he’s been to the town several times before to visit an old school friend who has since died of cancer. Some of the separate sections of the book are recollections of the dead friend; others are memories of the past or describe the day of the soccer match.
The flashbacks are “random” in that the reader chooses what section to read next. If that sounds annoying, think of how random memories pop up into our present consciousness.
In the book box, there is a stack of loose-leaf printed pages. Some are bound in groups, some are single sides, and some are double-sided pages.
The author? Bryan Stanley (B.S.) Johnson) was born in 1933 and died in 1973. Depressed by his lack of commercial success and with family problems, he committed suicide. At the time he was basically unknown to the general reading public and was, at best, a cult favorite. A 2004 biography by Jonathan Coe, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, led to a revival of interest in Johnson’s work.
From a review of Coe’s bio in The Village Voice: “His technical ingenuity peaks with The Unfortunates (1969), a narrative in 27 pamphlets, all but the first and last of which can be read in any order. The book is fungible, but not just for fun; instead it’s Johnson at his most searing—a grief-stricken remembrance of his friend Tony Tillinghast, an academic who died of cancer at 29. Narrator Johnson travels to report on a football match (one of his regular gigs) and realizes the city is one he knows well, his late friend’s home. The interchangeable format reproduces the random nature of memory, as Johnson intended, and also affects other resonances. The dwindling stack of pamphlets mirrors the wasting body; the box they come in is a casket. But the book memorializes his friend’s short life by having it power a nearly infinite story—billions of novels for the price of one. Here is the beautiful collision of possibility and rigor.”
You might say the book’s format is just a gimmick, but reviewers say that the quality of the writing and the story are very effective.
I don’t hear the term “avant-garde” much these days. It seems ironically old-fashioned. In college, I had a course where we read Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, William S Burroughs and other avant-garde writers. Is The Unfortunates a book for that reading list? Probably not. It is really a book about memory, friendship, and loss. Then again, the descriptions of some of Johnson’s other novels, such as House Mother Normal, make me think he does belong on that reading list.