We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
A Celebration of Accidents
Steven Moore’s recent work, The Novel: An Alternative History, begins with an introductory account of how innovative, challenging fiction is often pushed out of the critical conversation as too idiosyncratic or difficult or errant. Moore’s work is centered on tracing the innovative strains of the novel throughout its history, dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Sumerians. The reason for such a work, he claims, is to reposition the longsuffering history of innovative fiction as the ne plus ultra of the form’s definition, as well as to counter recent assertions that such “difficult” fiction should be in some sense excluded from the ongoing conversation rather than essential to it.
This fallacious division into realist and experimental fiction has been going on for almost as long as the novel has existed. Among the victims of the sometimes vicious categorizing and labeling are many novels now canonical but once disparaged (as well as many others still hotly contested). There are also those whose star of critical appreciation is in the ascendant, or whose all-but-forgotten position is slowly being remedied. Of these, B.S. Johnson’s masterpiece, The Unfortunates, recently reprinted after decades out of print, is a prime example.
Like so many other innovative works, The Unfortunates met with critical dismissal and a general refusal to take seriously the terms of the book and its project. Instead, much of the critical response related to what was perceived as the gimmicky fact of the book’s physical form, that of a box of unbound signatures. Jonathan Coe, who has done much recently to revive the faded memory of Johnson’s work (including the introduction to the re-released The Unfortunates as well as a biography, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson), explains that the unusual form provided “a ready-made weapon” for critics to dismiss and fail to engage “with the novel on its own terms”, decrying it as an example of art pour l’art. The result of this critical dismissal is summed up by Coe:
Only one of his seven novels remains in print, and instead of being forgotten Johnson has been consigned to what some might regard as an even worse fate: that of being endlessly invoked as a reference point in a sporadic and none too fruitful argument about something called “experimental” fiction.
In fact, The Unfortunates offers much, not only to the study of the novel but also to a larger discussion based around the nature of mind and how we experience emotions from literature. It also speaks to how our cognitive architecture might be drawn upon to better achieve such emotional effects.
B.S. Johnson holding his book, The Unfortunates
First published in 1969 as the fourth of Johnson’s seven novels, The Unfortunates took Johnson’s formal innovations to their peak: published as an unbound book in a box—described by one reviewer as giving the reader the “almost . . . prying” sensation of opening “a box of old letters”—The Unfortunates is comprised of 27 sections, ranging from one to twelve pages in length. With the exception of those labeled first and last, it is meant to be read in random order. The novel’s plot details Johnson’s arrival in Nottingham to cover an unimpressive soccer match for the Observer and his sudden realization that he “know[s] this city,” and it brings back memories of a good friend who died young of cancer. The story takes place—like Johnson’s beloved Ulysses—over the course of a day and with the neural speed of Proust’s epiphanic taste of the petite madeleine. Johnson (whose novel is nonfiction in the form of a novel, as he eschewed what he called “telling lies”) chronicles the experience of a flurry of sense impressions mixing with memories, from the moment he steps off a bus till he begins his ride home. The novel blends the present with the various stages of the past. That is, in sum, the fabula of The Unfortunates. The significance here though lies in the stochastic syuzhet which attempts to affect in the reader the same overall process Johnson goes through. The aim of the novel is not to record or report with a reconstructed order but to be true to the disorderly and seemingly simultaneous experiences, to recreate in the readers the overwhelming admixture of present and past, and the increasingly blurred line between them as we assess our immediate experience of the world.
The story of the novel’s “unlucky, just unlucky, unfortunates” is thus the story of memory imposing itself on sense impressions, and the attempt to tease out from these concurrent streams of thought some sense or order. However, the sense or order is always sought but never achieved, the enterprise of making sense of experience, memories, and their intermingling is always a flawed and impossible one. Johnson’s project is bound by parallel doubts about the effort: “How shall I place his order, his disintegration?” he asks in the first section, answering in the last,
Can any death be meaningful? / Or meaningless? Are these terms one can use about death? / I don’t know, I just feel the pain, the pain.
In his memoir Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?, Johnson claimed that the challenge of The Unfortunates was dealing with the material, “the memories of Tony and the routine football reporting, the past and the present, interwove in a completely random manner, without chronology.” His project is to be faithful not only to the content of the experience but to the form as well.
In this way the whole novel reflected the randomness of the material: it was itself a physical tangible metaphor for randomness and the nature of cancer.
The effort at the center of this recounting is one of being true to the experience’s emotive effects and situational happening. Johnson gives the same experience of being flooded with randomly ordered sense impressions and memories so that the reader can more effectively experience the emotional aspect as Johnson did, with the novel maintaining a rigorous adherence to his conviction that “all is nothing, that sense does not exist.” Johnson is after both a more faithful and natural recreation of the experience he is narrating than that found in a traditional, re-ordered, linear narrative and also a more rigorous artistic representation of life itself, where the form of the novel can better achieve the randomness of life lived. It is at once an intellectual and an emotional project.
Where the Hellawi?
Some novels share an aim to affect an account of the interior existence of a person, to analyze, or represent in some way what it is to be human. The aim of this “serious fiction,” as David Foster Wallace said in a 1993 interview
is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering.
The best literature in this category pursues what are classically considered philosophical issues; the difference is that they pursue them not from the objective side of things (that is indeed the purview of philosophy) but from the subjective. In this regard, it’s perhaps best to approach this literature by considering the ways it approaches the problems of other minds, identity, and mind itself. We could conceive of the novel as treating of the particular, subjective instantiations of what philosophy deals with on the general level.
There has been a recent upsurge in popularity of the so-called “cognitive turn” in literary studies specifically to facilitate such a pursuit. This includes scholars such as Lisa Zunshine who have begun applying an awareness of Theory Of Mind or studies in cognition to critical readings of the novel. In Why We Read Fiction, Zunshine enunciates the importance of what she abbreviates “TOM” to literature, discussing how various authors have intentionally used and challenged various considerations of TOM. These include Nabokov’s Lolita and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, among other examples.
Zunshine’s choices are ones she believes are particularly useful by virtue of being commonly termed “difficult” and even “experimental.”
Although all fictional texts rely on and thus experiment with their reader’s ability to keep track of who thought, wanted, and felt what and under what circumstances, some authors clearly invest more of their energy into exploiting this ability than others.
Zunshine’s point is that works that are difficult not for the sake of being difficult but rather because they are richly imbued with cognitive challenges are particularly useful for both cognitive scientists and literary critics. Responding to comments made by Steven Pinker regarding Virginia Woolf’s initiation of modernism (he claims Woolf eschews all time-tested, traditional methods more or less arbitrarily) Zunshine corrects his assessment by pointing out the long history of experimentation, from Heliodorus to Sterne, and suggests these texts might prove particularly valuable to advanced literary-cognitive study.
Ostensibly experimental texts, such as Mrs. Dalloway and Tristram Shandy, are thus a boon for an interdisciplinary analysis drawing on cognitive science and literary studies. . . . By thus paying attention to the elite, the exceptional, to the cognitively challenging . . . we can develop, for instance, a more sophisticated perspective on the workings of our Theory of Mind. . . . If Sterne was going against some cognitive grain, we need to understand that grain in terms incommensurably more specific than the ones evoking “structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability.”
Thus Zunshine has called upon literary critics to perform that same type of thoroughgoing and rigorous cognitive analysis on other “ostensibly experimental” works, allowing for their particular ability to not only comment upon Theories of Mind but also to inform developments and advances in cognitive science and TOM.
In this way, the longsuffering experimental novel can be seen as central to the study of literature, central to extrapolating what it is novels tell us about a host of philosophical problems. Johnson’s unique creation of textual randomness cries out for this type of more serious regard, and with Zunshine’s frame, we can see that analyzing and articulating Johnson’s project could be distinctly beneficial to our understanding of TOM, of narrative in relation to mental processes, and even a cognitive understanding of emotion.
Johnson’s project was not just to create a semblance of randomness in text but to faithfully create an image of the mind in text. Referring to the technical issues he faced, he says, “This is the way the mind works, my mind anyway . . . .” This qualification is of great significance: it’s a direct attempt to illustrate a subjective instantiation of a more general Theory Of Mind. Just as this novel’s form tells us about other novels and about narrative form in general, the book’s randomly functioning mind offers a rich self-portrait that either through similarity or difference tells us a lot about our own mental workings.
Me to My Observant Solitude
David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature offers a useful start to analyzing Johnson’s book. Hume traces the process through which the mind receives, stores and categorizes experiences. In so doing, he shows that it is the mental process itself which begins narrativizing, seeking for and creating causal connections between terms in a series. For Hume, these are truths that we put onto the world; they are the machinations of our mental makeup.
Hume’s argument, which fits nicely with Johnson’s, is that life is not orderly, governed by necessity, and fit for linear explanatory narratives. It is instead chaotic, and any order is imposed by us. In The Unfortunates, while sitting at lunch, Johnson likewise reflects “anything means something only if you impose meaning on it, which in itself is a meaningless thing, the imposition.” Johnson’s experimental works of fiction fall in with those whose aim to make the reader recognize his/her own role in the work, his/her own everyday interpretative framework and cognitive acts.
Hume’s description of the mind is stripped of all but experiences and impressions. Paralleling Johnson’s unbound novel, Hume writes that we are all “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.” He goes on to use this beautiful and apt metaphor,
The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The composition of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos’d.
The similarities between this depiction and Johnson’s run deeper than just resonant metaphors: considered in this light, Johnson’s book becomes a faithful representation of mind itself. Just as the mind is no more than the sum of its parts, Johnson’s unbound assemblage is a manifestation of the mind: an unbound “bundle or collection of different perceptions.”
We can ask what the book’s unusual structure tells us about the mind’s workings. Just as with Hume’s theory, Johnson’s implicitly argues that the mind takes in impressions, stores them, and forms narrative connections between them. Reason seeks completion. In this respect, we see that Johnson’s form is the raw thoughtstuff of mind and the narrative process the reader undergoes is the mental operation, again made manifest. We, as readers, seek to make causal narrative connections between Johnson’s nonlinear chapters. This is not necessarily a difficult thing to achieve, as critic Richard Holmes observed in his 1969 review “Leaves in the Wind,”
Reconstructing the story thus, is the first provocation: even though the sections come as randomly as the memories are supposed to, yet your mind effortlessly creates its own order—the course of Tony’s disease, the familiar discussions, the feminine geography—all rattling into place with electric, fascinating speed.
Indeed, through the process of putting a narrative order onto the nonlinear flurry of sensations and memories and events in The Unfortunates, we can see our own mental acuity at this narrative making. The mind Johnson is making us most aware of is, in the end, our own.
The Unfortunates shows us the process by which we come to understand the random chaos of the world around us, how we “tell stories.” Johnson’s project advances along the same TOM lines as Hume’s work. Just as Hume sought to tease out how the mind worked and how we fell into the mistaken connection between sense impressions and claims regarding necessity, The Unfortunates forces us to see that despite our natural tendency and our best efforts to make The Unfortunates a solvable, neat narrative, in the end it can simply all be shuffled again, re-experienced. Ultimately The Unfortunates fits what Johnson said elsewhere of life, describing it as “chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily.”
Johnson’s depiction of a mind is a subjective one. He gives us an experience of a mind, but it is not an objective portrait, not an outsider analysis, but rather as close as we can get to experiencing Johnson’s mind itself. The risk here is solipsism. Robert Ryf sees this as a problem Johnson falls into,
his stubborn insistence upon solipsism . . . comes into conflict with his insistence on telling the truth. The only truth available to the solipsist is the inside of his own head, so that the full flux of the experience is never in view…and what remains is largely a view of the writer’s interior landscape at a given moment . . .
Although this tendency toward the solipsistic might, on the surface, seem problematic and limiting to his narrative pursuit, I would argue Johnson is doing other than simply painting a portrait of “the inside of his own head.” Rather, he endeavors to create, as Giles Gordon labeled it, a “subjective objective,” a thoroughgoing portrait of a subjective mind that is at once also an objective experience of how mind works for all readers.
Johnson himself worried about solipsism; the final page of the last section of The Unfortunates enunciates his awareness of this tendency,
The difficulty is to understand without generalization, to see each piece of received truth, or generalization, as true only if it is true for me, solipsism again, I come back to it again . . .
The worry about falling into solipsism and showing only “the inside of his own head” is of course that the work won’t speak to others, that it will be, as Johnson says, “true only if it is true for me.” As Holmes says in his review,
With the paperchase device, and his fast-running, scrupulously honest prose, he succeeds marvelously in bringing the very process of experience and recall to the reader’s attention. But this technical self-absorption—for both author and reader—is finally at the expense of the reality of other lives . . . I’m not sure yet if it’s a failure of art, or life.
Though this worry is a legitimate one, I think it disappears when we consider the novel’s agenda. Johnson’s goal is to immerse the reader in the acts of mind and thereby share them more deeply, communicate them more faithfully. Or as William Gass puts it,
The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed; and though at first it might seem as if the richness of life had been replaced by something less so—senseless noises, abstract meanings, mere shadows of worldly employment—yet the new self with which fine fiction and good poetry should provide you is as wide as the mind is, and musicked deep with feeling.
A Soft Machine Thrown Against A Wire Fence
Gass’ beautiful phrase about the self that good fiction provides, that it should be “musicked deep with feeling,” brings us to a deeper consideration of Johnson’s work in The Unfortunates. Though the book can be read as a rigorous intellectual project the core project of The Unfortunates is an emotional one. As Johnson himself said of it,
What matters most to me about The Unfortunates is . . . that the need to communicate with myself then, and with such other selves as might be allowed, on something about which I cared and care deeply may also mean that the novel will communicate that experience to the readers, too.
That the novel might be considered challenging to some readers and might prove insightful in certain particulars—enhancing our understanding of TOM and cognitive study—is not at odds with, but is in fact essential to the emotional achievement that is the novel’s true content.
Johnson’s attempt to create a “subjective objective,” his unique method of involving the reader’s own mental processes in the construction of his narrative has much to contribute to a study of how novels intensively affect emotions in the reader. As Patrick Colm Hogan describes it in a recent study of why narratives affect us emotionally,
there is a recurring issue in aesthetics as to why we respond emotionally to literature. For example, why do we cry at the depiction of suffering? We are not suffering ourselves. Moreover, we know perfectly well that the characters are not real. Thus they are not suffering either. Appraisal theorists . . . suggest that we respond emotionally to literature because we mentally simulate the experiences of a character from his or her own point of view.
This type of emotional experiential simulation is the crux of Johnson’s formal innovations and intellectual project. The order we seek is perhaps a defense against the senseless pain of experience. Johnson’s intellectual project includes showing us how we “tell . . . stories” in this way. His emotional project immerses us in the senselessness, the random, so that we experience the raw emotion and not the more muted, narrative re-construction of that pain.
This awareness of the novel’s emotional content and attempt to better achieve emotional resonance in the reader seemed to go overlooked by critics at the time of the book’s release. Coe suggests in their dismissal reviewers failed
to even recognize that the book might be intended to have an emotional impact. . . . [Johnson] refuses—or is unable—to sacrifice intensity of feeling on the altar of formal ingenuity, and The Unfortunates is the supreme example of this. To read it is to be drawn, inexorably, by the coiled, unyielding threads of Johnson’s prose, into a vortex of shared grief.
It is the sharing of this grief, and the aesthetic attempt to speak truth that Johnson accomplishes. The Unfortunates is richly steeped with Johnson’s elegiac reflections on longing and loss; it is, in Coe’s aforementioned phrase, “a sustained lament in the tradition of Lycidas.” The explosion of memories and sense impressions begins with the sudden flooding in of the past, a past which is (by definition) irrecoverable, and which calls to mind not only the entire arc of his friendship with Tony but also a relationship with a woman named Wendy that flourished and fell apart during the same period of time. And, yet, there is no available consolation, no neat, tidy narrative to answer for all that meaningless loss. Even the football match Johnson covers is viewed with philosophical depth:
Always, at the start of each match, the excitement, often the only moment of excitement, that this might be the ONE match . . . where the extraordinary happens, something that makes it stand out, the match one remembers and talks about for years afterwards, the rest of one’s life. The one moment, the one match. . . . I cannot be interested in which of these teams wins . . . so hope only for the extraordinary, for the one match: but have to be prepared, as always, in everything, to settle for less.
These reflections and their obvious relation to Johnson’s thoughts on life, on chaos and senselessness help make the novel deeply moving and sad. The reader undergoes Johnson’s loss and his or her own attempt to reconstruct the experience, but in the end there is no solace. The Unfortunates does not permit explanations. Rather, it is senseless and painful, true to Johnson’s view of life itself. To echo Johnson’s phrase from the final section, all the reader is left with is “the pain, the pain.”
The content of Johnson’s narrative project is arguably a familiar one, touching upon ideas about life, death, loss, and even cancer; in Johnson’s phrase “…everything is reducible to a cliché, the action of carbolic acid on limestone.” This raises the question of how the novel goes about best representing human experience. Johnson aspired to go past the exhausted forms of the novel he sees being written, and to use the form of the telling to try to solve the problem of the inauthenticity of the emotional experience. “Where I depart from convention,” he wrote, “it is because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to say.” The idea of form for form’s sake was anathema to Johnson. “Form is not the aim, but the result. If form were the aim then one would have formalism; and I reject formalism.” Indeed, despite The Unfortunates’s formal innovation, which Holmes in his review seems to take as the major feature of the work and one that he is not always impressed by, he concedes it is an “unexpectedly sad novel that emerges.” In re-approaching experimental novels, we can see that the best aspire not to be intellectual or formal exercises but to evolve narrative form to better reflect our reality, and thereby better affect us emotionally.
The reader’s immersion in the form of the telling makes the emotions hit more personally, more intimately. Johnson’s project is not just to tell the reader about his experience; it is to so faithfully recreate the lived experience, the mental experience, that the reader him/herself undergoes it. The reader is moved beyond reading about an Other to being deep in the Self. Hogan’s simulation account of emotional effect includes what he calls “two sorts of spatial organization” to our “standard neurocognitive architecture.” Roughly, he claims we have both object-oriented and subject-oriented spatial awareness. The first maps “the relation of objects to one another,” whereas the latter “maps where they are in relation to me right now.” He goes on to posit that effective emotional “simulation involves imagining from the point of view of the character,” which “must involve not only objective, hippocampal organization of space but egocentric, parietal situatedness, as well.” So, effective emotional literary portrayals cause the reader to experience the character’s perception of those objects in relation to him or her; not just an organization of objects in space but also an egocentric situating of the self in that space.
The fact of the reader’s mental participation in the narrative of The Unfortunates, creating the links and, as it were, the binding, the subjective or “egocentric . . . situatedness” is more effectively achieved. The reader is more easily capable of feeling the pain Johnson feels at a given sight or thought because the reader must do a greater deal of the work. His/her imagination is engaged deep at the level of “the point of view of the character,” here Johnson himself, and this is clearly both objective and “egocentric . . . situadeness” the reader experiences as the objects of perception and the impressions and memories all intermingle “with inconceivable rapidity,” in Hume’s phrase, conveying the sense of “perpetual flux and movement.” Though it is Johnson’s Self, we are granted access to the experience and not just as passive witnesses. We, like Johnson, undergo the randomness of the sensations and memories, but we also construct the narrative inside ourselves. We do not follow any prescribed narrative ordering; we are barraged by memories and sense impressions, and we construct of these a unique experience.
A Bunch of Bananas
The changes new media today represent include more than just an emphasis on image over text; they also include a new rapidity and a fragmentary delivery. The rise of brevity-inspiring social media like Twitter and Facebook, the 140-character limit imposed by text messaging, sites like YouTube and Hulu that deliver small, segmented video clips as opposed to television’s more aggregated and contiguous presentations—they all contribute to how we receive information and thereafter understand the world in which we live. Along with the cognitive and emotive turns seen recently in literary criticism, there have also been investigations into how criticism can best adapt to this changing media landscape. In a recent article, Meredith McGill and Andrew Parker suggest literary criticism likewise needs to innovate, to evolve as times change, in order to better reflect the complexities of present day reality. They ask whether “new media demand the creation of innovative literary-critical forms.” Their analysis goes on,
Kevin Kelly is far from alone in suggesting that “we are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift. . . . A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture.”
These thoughts are prefigured in Johnson’s own ideas regarding the novel and the need for literary forms to evolve as new media change the way readers understand their world and receive information. Johnson wrote,
The novelist cannot legitimately or successfully embody present-day reality in exhausted forms. . . . Present-day reality is changing rapidly; it always has done, but for each generation it appears to be speeding up.
In line with what the above articulation of his formal project, he advocated responding to this progression by focusing on what the novel can best explore.
In some ways the history of the novel in the twentieth century has seen large areas of the old territory of the novelist increasingly taken over by other media, until the only thing the novelist can with any certainty call exclusively his own is the inside of his own skull.
The call for a new literary criticism that can better respond to these new media could also benefit from considering textual works like Johnson’s that specifically aim to explore the way the mind works and receives information, as well as the way this information gathering process impacts our emotional experience. The Unfortunates is particularly valuable in its prescient fragmenting of the bound book into rapidly received segments of varying size, mirroring today’s media.
The Unfortunates is thus a boon to literary studies for an array of reasons, from understanding what fiction tells us about the composition of minds, to examining how the simulation of experience and an affected situatedness impact our emotional experiences, to, finally, how new media and forms of information delivery inform the makeup of “the inside of [our] own skull[s].” Moore’s history underscores how long many of these novels, the exceptions to the rules of their particular times, have languished without proper critical appreciation or examination. However, with the recent trends in literary criticism—both the cognitive and emotive turns—along with the call for an innovative literary critical approach to match innovations in new media and information dissemination, previously overlooked examples of innovative fiction, like B.S. Johnson’s chaotic masterpiece, are going to be centrally important.
Michael Sheehan is a former editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. His fiction has appeared recently in DIAGRAM and Conjunctions. He lives and writes in Washington, D.C.
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