Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 2, 2009

B. S. Johnson, _Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry_

I READ ALBERT Angelo a few years ago and liked it, which led to my picking this one up (a steal at four dollars), and I decided it was time I got around to reading it.

It was published in 1973, the year Johnson committed suicide, partly, some surmise, out of frustration with his fiction's failure to find readers.  His fiction takes meta-fictional turns involving mockery of ordinary readerly expectations for fiction, so its being none too popular does not surprise.  Albert Angelo, for instance, is about a teacher in a fairly rough working-class London school, a kind of grimier To Sir with Love, or Up the Down Staircase with chilblains and weak tea, but after about 100 pages of this the novel suddenly turns into an essay on autobiographical fiction and the folly of decking one's experiences out as a "novel."

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is at heart a fable about the eternal enmity between employer and employee, which another writer could have decked out with enough description, scene-setting, character development and such to fill 400 pages, but Johnson's gestures in these directions are utterly gestural, brushed by with a sigh: "An attempt should be made to characterise Christie's appearance. I do so with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a novel" (51).  Or, announcing a passage describing Christie's thoughts: "For the following passage it seems to me necessary to attempt transcursion into Christie's mind; an illusion of transcursion, that is, of course, since you know only too well in whose mind it all really takes place" (23).  The narrator wearily confesses that characters have been invented just to further a plot point, companies given names only to provide a thin veneer of verisimilitude.  Near the end, Christie and the narrator have a frank talk about what it will mean for Christie that his story is soon to complete its course.

All good fun, this, but as in Flann O'Brien or Beckett the narrative hi-jinks contrast with a prevailing sadness.  Christie's learning double-entry book-keeping in the early chapters, undertaken to give him a modest chance of earning a secure living, gives him the idea that he is owed something -- owed something, that is, for the unending series of large and small humiliations, the constant condescension, the routine dehumanisation that attends being a cog in a business concern.  To balance accounts, he begins a campaign of pranks that escalates into sabotage that escalates into murder...a very potent political fable, I'd say, which Johnson is far too knowing a writer to turn into any sort of latter-day Upton Sinclair or Jack London novel.
He is constantly deflating his own balloon, keeping it from turning into the gaseous naturalistic novel it threatens to become. 

I keep hearing about Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson -- it's time I gave it a look, I think.

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