Wednesday, February 08, 2017

B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973)

I do not think it merely an unfortunate coincidence that Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973)--British novelist, playwright, poet, critic, and filmmaker--went by "B.S."  On the evidence of this novel, he was very concerned with whether fiction has truth value or whether it is, indeed, bullshit.

I'd been wanting to read Johnson for some time. He moved in the same literary circles as Ann Quin, the novelist I was somewhat disappointed by last year (horrible to relate, but just months after she drowned herself, he slit his wrists, at the age of forty).  "You didn't like her, so why would you go on to read a similar novelist?" you ask.  Well, I don't actually KNOW they're similar, and more to the point, I just can't resist an experimental novelist. I certainly never had any plans to read ALL his novels if I didn't like this one (he wrote seven, one published posthumously).

Christie Malry is a man who works in a bank, on account of his desire to be near money.  One day, he comes up with a great idea: he'll apply the concept of double-ledger accounting--a system, as I understand it, where you make two opposite records for each transaction so as to keep the books accurate--to his own life, meaning that he'll seek to balance out any perceived injustice against himself ("debit") with an equal strike against the world ("credit").  I am not an accountant, but I REALLY don't think that's how the concept works--which, I suppose, may be part of the point.  His credits start with petty vandalism but escalate with alarming speed to terrorism and mass murder on a scale to make the 911 hijackers jealous. Human lives, is his reasoning, aren't actually worth much: if a big machine breaks down, it's hella expensive to fix or replace, but if a worker dies--hell, you can easily find any number of others to take their place.  It's a pointed critique or late capitalism, for sure.

This may sound disturbing, and it is to an extent, but less so than it might be. I don't want to give the wrong impression: this is not a crime novel, nor is it about the consequences of evil or anything like that.  No, this is a highly metafictional text that constantly calls attention to its own artificiality--characters frequently make note of the fact that they're in a novel, and Christie has several conversations with the author--creating a bit of a distancing effect from its protagonist (who remains intentionally inscrutable throughout) and his actions.  Johnson also pushes against narrative conventions like providing physical descriptions of characters--these, he probably-accurately notes, are glossed over by most readers; he advises us to imagine Christie looking however we want, within very loose parameters.  Also to the end of emphasizing the textiness of the text--though presumably also because it's just fun--he sticks a bunch of flashy words in:

Miching malicho

It would be hard to consider a narrative that uses words like these naturalistic.

So is it good?  Yeah, it's pretty good.  I was kind of on the fence about it when I finished it, but on reflection, I think it's better than not.  The theme of questioning fiction's truth value is certainly worthwhile, even if not particularly original (though to be fair, this WAS 1973, and I HAVE read more books that do this than most).  I still can't quite get over my impression that it's a bit slight, but hell, it's unquestionably SHORT, so if you hate it, you won't be wasting a lot of time.  Me, I'll probably check out some of Johnson's other novels at some point.  Happily, I brought with me to Indonesia a book entitled The BS Johnson Omnibus that contains three of 'em, so I should be set.


Post a Comment

<< Home