Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2009

The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson

It was Trevor in America who alerted me to this intriguing book and it wasn’t very long before I succumbed and bought a copy.

Like Trevor, I haven’t read it yet, I’m still savouring it.  For as Trevor says:

‘The Unfortunates comes in a box because it is a book with no binding.  The first section and last section are marked, but the 25 sections in between, which range from a paragraph to 12 pages, are meant to be read in any random order the reader chooses.  As we read them, in whatever order, the events coalesce into something congruent.  That’s not entirely unique in today’s world of post-linear narrative.  However, the fact that we the readers have a hand in ordering this randomness — that we get to exercise, and thus witness, arbitrary whims — does have an effect on our reading’.

This is indeed experimental fiction!  I think it’s like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure children’s books on steroids!

Anyway, I’m not ready to start it yet, and not just because I’m reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood first.

As you can see from the picture, the book is presented a bit like a gift box of greeting cards or notepaper, and the 25 sections that you can read in any order you like come wrapped in red paper.  So a decision has to be made.  Shall I read it in the random order that it came in, or shall I rip the wrapping off (no! I shall do this very carefully!) and shuffle the pages to create a random order of my own? The box offers no guidance, though its inside edges does have some cunning little bits of text which I have only just noticed – even though the box has sat beside my keyboard all night long, tempting me on and off to pick up the pages, feel the smooth expensive texture of the paper, turn them over, and run my fingers along the edges before putting them back into the box.  The last page in the pile is page 6, but what’s the first? And if they are numbered, is it cheating or puerile to put them in numerical order?  Surely it must matter what order I read them in!!

(Did Johnson, I wonder, read this book in all its permutations to see if it works no matter what order you read them in? My maths is a bit rusty: is that 25 x 24 x 23 etc? Whatever it is, it’s a lot of readings, because it’s an enormous number -so big it caused my calculator to have a hissy fit. But even if Mr J could actually manage to read his little book in all possible permutations, he could not reproduce the act of reading it for the first time in a different order, could he?  Apart from the fact that he wrote it himself and so he knows what happens, each time he read it he would remember what happened when he read it before.  It would be a different experience, and yet the same.)

Hmm.  I am assuming something happens.  This is probably a mistake…

This is what the LHS side says:

“I will tell you in three words what the book is – It is a history.  A history?  of who? what? where? when? Don’t hurry yourself – it is a history book, Sir (which may possibly recommend it to the world) of what passes in a  man’s own mind.”

Hmpf.  Sir??  Addressed only to the male of the species??  Do we have an unreconstructed chauvinist here??

And on the RHS it says:

“I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful”.

The last chapter is entitled ‘Sub Inspires City Triumph” with a subtitle City 1 United 0 and a byline From B.S. Johnson, and seems to be about football.  Soccer? Gridiron?  Rugby? Aussie rules?  I don’t know enough about football to tell.  Have I accidentally bought a book about sport??  Surely not.  It’s more likely to be the author playing around with different text types.

I don’t think this is a book to read in bed.  I think it deserves some kind of ceremony.  There needs to be a large table to spread the pages out, and a large G&T to steady my nerves.  Perhaps ensconsced in what we chez Tim and Lisa call The Lower Belvedere on a mild and sunny day, with no wind to blow the pages about. (NB That photo is 5 years old, so the dogs look a bit older now).

BTW  B.S. Johnson, who died in 1973, features quite a lot on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, (the original list) but The Unfortunates is not included.   His books that are on the list include House Mother Normal; Trawl; and Albert Angelo.  You can read about these novels on the B.S. Johnson website, and Wikipedia, but I’m not going to because I don’t want to read anything that might influence how I read The Unfortunates, not until after I’ve read it.

Update: see my adventures in reading it here.


  1. If you like that, it might be worth looking at Bev Rowe’s translation of Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets, if you haven’t seen it already –


    • What fun! I love stuff like this! Lisa


  2. I don’t know about whether I’d like Johnson, but I did like In cold blood when I read it several years ago. I don’t normally read crime but it’s a gripping book even though you know what it’s about. The beginning of the True Crime genre I believe.

    BTW Is that your garden? Gorgeous.


  3. That part of the garden used to be a garage! We took the roof off, and the front brick wall and half of each side but left the timber roof framing in situ as a pergola. For three years we had a grape vine which provided wonderful shade but then the possums discovered it *sigh*. Now we’re thinking of doing something with an awning, because it will be unusable in the summer without shade. The table is made from an original wagon wheel which belonged to Tim’s grandfather and makes a lovely spot for al fresco lunches.


  4. How creative … it looks perfectly charming. However, with your four-seasons in a day do you ever really get a chance for a nice al fresco lunch!!! LOL


  5. Now, now, anyone who lives in Canberra can’t be too critical of our weather! BTW The Spouse and I are toying with a trip up to see the artworks on loan, not sure when yet.


  6. LOL…I reckon we can but you can stick to your view if you like! Well, if you come let us know … we are away a couple of times over the coming months but will be here most of the time.


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