5 out of 5: B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is a remarkable book. The novel is broken into 27 pamphlet-sized sections. Except for the first and last sections, the remaining 25 sections are intended to be read in random order. For more details on this unusual book design (including pictures of this book-in-a-box), see my prior post on the topic here.
The Unfortunates tells the story of 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 and other poignant memories of the past. Other sections describe the day of the soccer match. The switching back and forth from the present to the past happens at random, depending on the order in which the reader reads the sections. This randomness creates a disjointed reading experience that almost perfectly mimics how memories intrude into present consciousness. I doubt I’ve ever encountered a book structure or organizational scheme that has conveyed so much meaning.
In addition to the structure, the prose is a commentary on the mysterious workings of memory: “”I try to invest anything connected with him now with as much rightness, sanctity, almost, as I can, how the fact of his death influences every memory of everything connected with him.” The overall mood is one of sadness, but Johnson inserts some levity by playing with language (“These men on their way to football, they are the same in any city, … on their way to any match, their raincoats, their favours, in some cases, the real fan does not need to show his favour by favours, but by his fervour, and so on.”). The mood is also lightened by the narrator’s obvious enjoyment of day to day pleasures (“The cheese [rolls] had raw onion in them, anyway, a new taste, I enjoyed it, the crispness and the soft dough and clinging cheese. Ah.”).
Without question, this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in many years. I highly recommend it.