by Killian Quigley
Published by New Directions, 2008 | 176 pages
Published in 1969, B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates received note primarily for its unique (maybe even confounding) conceit: twenty-seven pamphlets, collected in a box, to be read in random order (except for the marked first and last pamphlets). The Unfortunates predicted the stylistic audaciousness of McSweeney’s during a time when the standard-holders of the literary canon were engaged in what they considered a bitter war with the postmodern barbarians chomping to defile the library that Western formalism built.
As such, the book has become known more as a footnote of the avant-garde rather than for its content—a curious experiment in presentation, perhaps, but not considered a significant work of fiction. The original British printing has long been a collector’s item (to the author’s dismay, a traditional bound volume was released in Hungary).
With this New Directions’ reprint, The Unfortunates gets another opportunity to receive the appreciation it deserves, and in the form that Johnson intended. While the unbound book remains an oddity, there is much to recommend that transcends stylistic novelty.
Written in memory of his late friend Tony Tillinghast, a prominent football (American soccer) player, Johnson’s novel explores the frayed threads of loss and mourning through the protagonist’s unraveling memories. While a rough narrative can be gleaned—football reporter visits a town, only to be confronted with memories of his deceased friend and long-forgotten personal associations with the place—narrative is secondary to experiencing the protagonist’s elliptical recollections and ruminations.
The novel betrays far more modernist roots than its format might suggest, clear in its fascination with the processes of the mind. Johnson uses this technique as a way of examining the discursive nature of consciousness, not unlike James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, only with Choose Your Own Adventure–esque user interaction. At times recalling Italo Calvino in his pique and playfulness, Johnson’s lyrical examination of the protagonist’s inner monologue is far more personal and explicatory than Calvino’s fictional larks.
It’s a compelling work that seems nearly traditional with forty years’ hindsight and is clearly due a critical reassessment. Despite the potentially intimidating premise, The Unfortunates is ultimately notable for providing an intricate and intimate exploration of loss and memory.
Paul M. Davis, a freelance writer and temporary vagabond, edits the online magazine Is Greater Than (isgreaterthan.net).