B. S. Johnson’s notoriously experimental book in a box, The Unfortunates, published in 1969, is certainly more famous for the boldness of its format than the depth of its contents, if remembered at all. Having remained largely unknown to the wider reading public, it was hailed as “one of the lost masterpieces of the sixties” by Jonathan Coe, whose prize-winning biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), led to a growing interest in Johnson’s work.
The Unfortunates is made of a first and last section, clearly marked as such, plus twenty-five sections in between, designed to be read in any order the reader chooses. The book tells the story of a sports journalist, sent to Nottingham to cover a football match, only to find his mind haunted by memories of one his closest friends, now gone, tragically taken by cancer.
Drawing on recent studies on unnatural narrative, an important new area of research within what David Herman has defined as postclassical narratology, our study will seek not only to place the experimentalist structure of the novel in the theoretical framework of those studies, but also to focus on how its format replicates the unpredictable workings of the mind. In the end, our aim is to the address the random order of the unbound chapters not as a simple formal trick, but as a tangible metaphor for the randomness of memory as one meditates on friendship, death and loss.
37th APEAA Meeting, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Nova University of Lisbon, 21-23 March 2016