Thursday, July 21, 2005

"Be quiet! ... Some of us are trying to write masterpieces!"

The above quote comes from B.S. Johnson's final novel, See The Old Lady Decently, part of what he conceived of as the "Matrix Trilogy." The two subsequent volumes were to have been titled Buried Although and Amongst Those Left Are You; the idea was that a sentence could be read across the spines, provided you put the volumes next to each other. Actually, I suppose you'd have to stack them, with the first volume on top, to read the whole thing in a normal left-right pattern. (John Barth joked about his novel The Sot-Weed Factor that he wanted to write a book "fat enough to wear its title right-side up across its spine")

I've just reviewed Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. I hope I've given the impression that Johnson himself is worth reading; it bugs me when eccentrics aren't taken seriously for their work, only for their lives. (This sometimes happens in discussions of my two favorite Windy City artists, Harry Stephen Keeler and Henry Darger.)

I'm weirdly chatty this morning.

I thought I'd include two extracts from See the Old Lady Decently, for those who are interested. The first is a bit of concrete poetry (the book is about, among other things, his mother). The second is an example of the "BB"—for Bigger Britain—chapters (the book is about, among other things, England's decay), which reads like an encyclopedia entry in which proper nouns have been erased or mostly obliterated. (The long gap between the sentences is typical of much of BSJ's work—lacunae represented pauses in thought.) STOLD is probably not the Johnson book to start with—I'd recommend Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry or Albert Angelo.

OK. Here they are:



(p. 59 in the U.S. edition)


The first F travellers, using I waterways and trading with I, usually identified themselves with I interests; they looked upon the I as a fellow-man. The British when they came were independent of the I and regarded them as obstacles, and so it came that there was not a whose friendship the F did not win and retain long after their power had passed away.

The A, moreover, are not everywhere the same.
(pp. 102–5)


A final note: The holes cut into two of Albert Angelo's later pages prefigure a hole in Salvador Plascencia's new book, The People of Paper; and The Unfortunates' (mostly) fungible pamphlets perhaps inspired Robert Coover's Heart Suit in the latest McSweeney's—a story told on large, shufflable playing cards.

Really finally: Johnson would always pick up a paper clip, if he saw one on the ground. I don't know why I love this but I do.


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