It's my month this month at book club, and this was my pick, more or less at semi-random. It's a thing I've been meaning to read for a while, but "a while" had stretched out so long I could no longer remember why I had even bought it, or exactly how long it had been gathering dust on my shelves. A while. But that mystery helped; had I known more about it, I might not have selected this. It's a little too on the nose for me, too much something I'm into to be utterly fearless in listening to a roomful of people dissect it. I'm a chronic sharer of the things I like, but I can also be a Gollum-like in keeping the things that are precious to myself, at least until I'm done digesting.
So, no, I didn't know anything about it. As the old saw goes about why people tend to read Mark first, I chose it because it was short.
Not knowing it was a comic novel, or that it was kind of avant garde, I opened it to find Christie Malry, a "simple man", taking a job in a London bank because he wants money and, you know, banks are where the money is. Not in the sense of the apocryphal Willie Sutton quote. Christie isn't a criminal, he is just simple and doesn't really understand money. I can empathize. He moves on from there to become a bookkeeper at a sweets factory, where he begins to apply the principles of double-entry bookkeeping to his life, and the perceived wrongs and slights that life doles out to him, from the major to the minor, are annotated as debits in a ledger, while Christie creates credits for himself in the form of general mischief, petty vandalism, and, later, mass murder. (I told you it was a comic novel didn't I.) Then it gets dark.
It is a brief wonderful blink at how there is meaning in our lives, and where that might be located, or whether there is any at all, where you might go to fill up that void if indeed there is nothing there aside from what we put in it, and how we serve that meaning to ourselves - or create it - in the shape of the novel. One thing I think that resonated with me but not with M was the degree to which the novel is not entirely outward facing, telling a story, capital S story, about external characters in whose lives things happen, but is also about itself, and novels in general.
At carmyarmyofme's New Year's Day party I saw her copy on her coffee table and spontaneously chirped about how much I'd loved it, which maybe skewed people's perception of it. mordicai was in his review perhaps less sanguine than he would have been if I hadn't shot my mouth off. Also in his review M likened it to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I confess I have picked up and hastily put down numerous times over the course of my life as a speaker of the English language, but I would probably locate Christy in the genetic lineage of comic formalists like Sterne, Joyce, and Beckett.
Apart from Christy, all of Johnson's books are out of print, and have been for a long time. On finishing this one, I immediately ran out and tracked down copies of Albert Angelo, Trawl, and House Mother Normal. That still leaves, for my own future reference, the list below. I also picked up a somewhat recently published biography of him, Like a Fiery Elephant, which I'm doubly excited to read since it's by Jonathan Coe, another writer I dig a lot (his House of Sleep is one of my favorite books of the 1990s - he's a little like what if Nick Hornby didn't make you so conscious of consuming a pop product). As someone who makes not at all infrequent and very earnest attempts at being a fiction writer yet who like Johnson regards the basis of fiction as a sort of lying, and is both mystified and tickled by my unrelenting love of the lie, this one passage in Albert Angelo dragged its finger across my heartstrings:
fuck all this lying look what I’m really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture trying to say something about writing my writing I’m my hero though what a useless appellation my first character then I’m trying to say something about me through him albert an architect when what’s the point in covering up… I’m trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth about my truth to reality about sitting here writing looking out across Claremont Square trying to say something about the writing and nothing being an answer to the loneliness to the lack of loving
All in all, a great find. As I get older I miss, with ever increasing nostalgia, the ramshackle pace of lovely discovery that happened on what now feels like was a weekly basis. Coming to work in a book store when that was still a novel thing, discovering author after author after author, feeling like Scrooge McDuck swan diving into a swimming pool of letters. I could not move an inch without coming across something I'd carry with me the rest of my life. That pang of fresh discovery doesn't happen nearly that much any more but when it does, man it is glorious.
Bring on more B.S. Johnson.
- Travelling People
- The Unfortunates
- See the Old Lady Decently
- The Evacuees
- London Consequences
- All Bull
- Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?
- You Always Remember the First Time