The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson

The Unfortunates is a “book-in-a-box” which is 200-300ish pages (I didn’t count) by B.S. Johnson. It was first published in 1969 by Picador. The “book-in-a-box” concept is interesting–Johnson gives two definite chapters to be read, as entitled, First and Last. The other 25 “chapters” or bound sections ranging from 1 to 12 pages in length, are meant to be shuffled and read in a random order.

The plot features Johnson himself writing about his friend Tony, who has passed away from cancer. He writes of his memories of Tony and the times they spent together while he is writing a sports article about a football (soccer) match. He also writes about his ex-girlfriend, “Wendy,” his wife, whose name I can’t recall–and doesn’t seem important, and Tony’s wife, June.

The strongest part of this novel is how Johnson plays with memory and form. He makes no attempt to glorify the past, or even his thoughts about it–he admits thinking selfish thoughts about wanting his work critiqued by Tony while Tony lives out his dying days suffering from cancer. The brutally honest telling of his scattered memories is just wonderfully real. During the “main” plot of the novel, the writing up of football, Johnson leaves the match early, stating he had already seen the important parts. Johnson skips out on the end of Tony’s life, complaining that Tony didn’t have the energy to give constructive criticism on his books, didn’t have time or energy to read, didn’t have the health to do anything–“a declining spiral of interest”–so he just skips out. This is an interesting act considering the fact that one of the only two static things in the novel is the ending, which is well written and moving.

One thing that really struck me about the importance of the random order of the rest of the chapters was when Johnson talks about going to Tony’s house, when he “knew” Tony’s health was improving–after I had already read the part where Tony passed away. While this play of form intrigued me, it also depressed me a bit. The entire novel was rather depressing, but I believe that’s part of it’s charm. Life is a bummer, cancerous death more so, and Johnson just captures that beautifully.

Although there isn’t much character development with anyone besides the narrator, the book is still quite good. The emotional ride that Johnson took me on was worth the strange structure. That might also be because, I believe, he was extremely successful in using that structure to play with the chaos and uncertainty of human memory and thought. Overall, the book was incredibly sad and thoughtful. I wouldn’t give an unconditional recommendation on this one, but if you like books that play with form, and you’re okay with a deeply sad story, then you should absolutely read The Unfortunates. 




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