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The Unfortunates (1969)

by B.S. Johnson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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403961,840 (4.05)35
A sports journalist, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when he disembarks at the railway station. Memories of one of his best, most trusted friends, a tragically young victim of cancer, begin to flood through his mind as he attempts to go about the routine business of reporting a football match. B S Johnson's famous 'book in a box', in which the chapters are presented unbound, to be read in any order the reader chooses, is one of the key works of a novelist now undergoing an enormous revival of interest. The Unfortunates is a book of passionate honesty and dark, courageous humour: a meditation on death and a celebration of friendship which also offers a remarkably frank self-portrait of its author.… (more)
  1. 00
    Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: An earlier, surprisingly powerful unbound novel. Saporta's book unlike Johnson's is a collection of loose pages that specifies neither starting nor end point.
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» See also 35 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
The Unfortunates is B S Johnson’s “infamous” book-in-a-box, and taking it down from the shelf here’s what you get: at first glance, a standard hardback with turquoise cover, title on the front and spine, back-cover blurb and barcode just as you’d expect—except that the whole thing is a small box. Open it out flat, and filling the right-hand tray is a stack of page-bundles which, in a normal hardback, would be bound together of course; but here they’re loose, held by a pink paper band. Facing them in the left-hand tray are your instructions: “NOTE. This novel has twenty-seven sections, temporarily held together by a removable wrapper. Apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such) the other twenty-five sections are intended to be read in random order. If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading.” It’s beautifully produced, a lovely thing to have.
    Its inner lining also has several quotations, including this one from Laurence Sterne: “It is a history, Sir…of what passes in a man’s own mind”, and that’s what this book is too: what passes through the narrator’s mind, particularly memories of a close friend whose life was cut tragically short by cancer, as he revisits the same city years later. Everywhere he goes—a particular pub, a street-market, a fish-and-chip shop, the main railway station—he remembers details, incidents and snatches of conversation until, in the end, he’s almost overwhelmed.
    We still tend to think of memory as accurate and orderly, when it’s becoming plain it isn’t like that at all; the brain edits, infers and rearranges. There’s clearly a lot else going on too, the way memories intrude into consciousness throughout the day, often intelligibly but also randomly and for no apparent reason. The Unfortunates was Johnson’s attempt at a realistic memoir, neither tidied up for the reader nor done to some literary formula of how it’s “supposed” to be done; these are his own memories of an actual former friend, precisely as they came to him. And it works: what emerges from the twenty-five interchangeable sections is a touching picture, not only of his lost friend and of a whole time and place now gone forever, but of the author himself.
    Honesty was always Johnson’s watchword as a writer; to attempt, at least, to be as realistic in his writing, as truthful, as he could manage; and this random book in its lovely box—“infamous” to many, “post-modern” and “eccentric”—is arguably the most true to life of all his novels. ( )
  justlurking | Aug 2, 2022 |
This book is unlike most books- not only the physical structure of it, but the content as well. It perfectly mimics and recreates the feeling of returning to a town you haven't been to in a while and being slammed with memories you can only half-remember. Unfortunately, it does get a little tedious about 3/4ths of the way through, but the ending brings it home. ( )
  Elna_McIntosh | Sep 29, 2021 |
This is Johnson's famous "book in a box", which comes as twenty-seven separate fascicules, to be read, apart from the ones marked "First" and "Last", in a random order. I don't know what he can do to stop us reading the ones marked "First" and "Last" in a random order as well, if we want to, though. The shortest of the fascicules is only half a page, the longest have twelve pages. Only a few are easily bindable multiples of four, however, so there must have been quite some technical headaches involved in making it. The 1999 re-issue includes a further fascicule with the title page and Jonathan Coe's Introduction, which is probably worth having. It's worth having a close look at the box, by the way, as the book's epigraphs from (Samuel) Johnson and Boswell are concealed in unsuspected spots around it.

A football reporter, operating on autopilot, gets off the train in yet another Saturday provincial town to report on a match (which could be anywhere, the teams are simply called "United" and "City"), and it's only as he's leaving the station that he registers that this is actually Nottingham, where he's often come to visit his student friend and literary mentor Tony, who died of cancer not long ago. As we follow the random sequence of the fascicules, the narrator's experiences of his afternoon in Nottingham and the football match are mixed together with memories of Tony, the times they have spent together, and his final illness and death.

The unusual format is probably about one-third interesting experiment and two-thirds publicity stunt, as this is obviously a book that would work perfectly well in conventional form, but it is interesting to catch yourself wondering how he knew you were going to read this particular bit before that bit, or whether there was some subtle trick of suggestion involved in making you choose a particular sequence. Our mind can't help imposing structure on random assemblies, it seems.

As we would expect, there's some clever, witty, touching and very self-critical writing involved, behind the gimmicks. The narrator is digging into his conscience to try to work out how much of his reaction to the death of his friend is purely selfish thoughts about his own loss, and what he could or should have done differently. And there's also a disturbing element of envy — how easy it would be to be dead too. Not now, but...

On the other hand, it's also fascinating to see how Johnson ties in the narrator's seriously literary aspirations (there's no real attempt to pretend that the narrator is anyone other than novelist and part-time sports correspondent B S Johnson) with the more mechanical but still quite demanding work of the football reporter. There's a lovely section in which he takes us through the writing of the match report from kick-off to telephone dictation, including all his false starts, rejected adjectives, tempting puns used and even more tempting ones not used, doubts about apostrophes, and so on. You could probably use it as training material on a journalism course: maybe people do.

Fun! ( )
  thorold | May 9, 2020 |
This is probably really great, but it's just too much for me. I love the form, but can't really follow that late-'60s pomo style. Sigh.
  librarybrandy | Mar 30, 2013 |
A collection of pamplets that may be read in any order. A very creative and stimulating structure. Well worth reading. ( )
  checkadawson | Nov 4, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Johnson, B.S.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Coe, JonathanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Maar deze stad ken ik!
Mais je la connais cette ville !
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A sports journalist, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when he disembarks at the railway station. Memories of one of his best, most trusted friends, a tragically young victim of cancer, begin to flood through his mind as he attempts to go about the routine business of reporting a football match. B S Johnson's famous 'book in a box', in which the chapters are presented unbound, to be read in any order the reader chooses, is one of the key works of a novelist now undergoing an enormous revival of interest. The Unfortunates is a book of passionate honesty and dark, courageous humour: a meditation on death and a celebration of friendship which also offers a remarkably frank self-portrait of its author.

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