Category Archives: the unfortunates by b.s. johnson

CR Readers’ Picks

Based on Amazon purchases made through links on this website, the following are the "picks" of Conversational Reading’s readers for 2008:


By a large margin, The Invention of Morel was the most popular purchase among readers of this blog. Obviously, my sincere praise of this book helped move it along, but I’m convinced that not nearly as many copies would have been purchased if this wasn’t a great book, and if Borges wasn’t Bioy’s literary collaborator. A great read, and if you haven’t had a chance to yet, definitely pick it up.


Not really a surprise, but something of an unusual pick is experimental British writer B.S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. Clearly, readers were drawn to this one for the atypical presentation (loose signatures collected in a box), although Johnson’s status as one of Britain’s most notable experimental authors of the late 20th century certainly didn’t hurt. For all you Johnson fans looking for more, be sure to check out Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant.


2666. For quite obvious reasons.


There’s a bit of a tie for fourth place with Senselessness, Television, and The Siege of Krishnapur, all excellent books. It’s a little interesting to see Television so high up, as it was published a couple years back and I’ve been talking more about two of Toussaint’s other books this year: Monsieur (re-issued this year) and Camera (published in English this year). But I won’t argue with your choice: I like them all, but I would put Television on top.


A number of books tied for fifth place:


And here are the rest that made a notable impression, saleswise:

Max Brod Sheds Light on The Unfortunates

Zadie Smith has a fine essay on Kafka in the most recent New York Review, and something she mentions about literary executor Max Brod seems quite pertinent for a book jut published here in the U.S.:

If few readers of Kafka can be truly sorry for the existence of the works Kafka had consigned to oblivion, many regret the way Brod chose to present them. The problem is not solely Brod’s flat-footed interpretations, it’s his interventions in the texts themselves. For when it came to editing the novels, Brod’s sympathy for the theological would seem to have guided his hand. Kafka’s system of ordering chapters was often unclear, occasionally nonexistent; it was Brod who collated The Trial in the form with which we are familiar. If it feels like a journey toward an absent God— so the argument goes—that’s because Brod placed the God-shaped hole at the end. The penultimate chapter, containing the pseudo-haggadic parable "Before the Law," might have gone anywhere, and placing it anywhere else skews the trajectory of ascension; no longer a journey toward the supreme incomprehensibility, but a journey without destination, into which a mystery is thrust and then succeeded by the quotidian once more.

Smith’s remarks on what the parable’s placement does to the religious trajectory of The Trial are, of course, absolutely correct. I would only hasten to add that placing what I think is the richest and most re-readable chapter of The Trial just before the end also adds to the aesthetic whole of the book: we get the best, the most poignant and visionary, right before the dark end.

In any event, The Trial would be a very different book were the chapters ordered differently.

I can’t help but connect this truth to some remarks I made a couple weeks ago about B.S. Johnson’s novel in a box, The Unfortunates.

The idea behind the book is that it’s a collection of unbound
signatures that you pick from randomly and read in whatever order
chance dictates (only the first and last ones are designated, and those
you’re supposed to read as assigned).

So I wonder, is everyone here working with the same text?

I made the remarks in regard to the fact that, since critics are now evaluating the work, it seemed fair to ask if they even were reading the same book. Smith’s comments re: The Trial would seem to indicate "no."

Smith then goes on to remark that a too-precise ordering of Kafka’s chapters would destroy some of the ambiguity he seems to have been at pains to leave readers with:

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Kafka would have placed
this chapter near the end, exactly as Brod did, but lovers of Kafka are
not inclined to credit him with Brod’s variety of common sense. The
whole point of Kafka is his uncommonness. Whatever Brod
explains, we feel sure Kafka would leave unexplained; whichever
conventional interpretation he foists on the works, the works
themselves repel.

Purposely preventing any firm chapter-ordering from being imposed on a novel would seem an excellent, if somewhat extreme, method for preserving this "uncommonness."

In this context, it’s worthwhile to consider that Kafka was attempting to limn the experience of a world  that he found inexplicable. If we are to take Kafka’s attempts to repel explanation as an attempt to show readers how this his world resists easy decryption, then what does that say of B.S. Johnson’s experiment?

Like Kafka Johnson too wanted to render a world he had difficulty comprehending, but his wasn’t bureaucracy and officaldom, it was the mind. The mixed-up nature of The Unfortunates is meant to illustrate the twisted paths found in a human mind. Not only is his book created in a way that resists explanation–it is written in a way that abdicates explanation, that says pure randomness can order the chapters just as well as he could. This is either a bleak image of Johnson’s hopes at comprehending another human intelligence or a particularly honest one.

Do They Review the Same Copy of The Unfortunates?

Now that New Directions’s edition of The Unfortunates is starting to get reviews, I wonder: Is everyone reading the same book?

The idea behind the book is that it’s a collection of unbound signatures that you pick from randomly and read in whatever order chance dictates (only the first and last ones are designated, and those you’re supposed to read as assigned).

So I wonder, is everyone here working with the same text?

I’ve so far seen two reviews of this book. Benjamin Lytal’s review has its virtues, but noticeably lacking is a consideration of what it means to review a book that your readers will likely never read, even if they read it.

John Lingan in Splice Today comment much more thoroughly on the book’s structure. And, although he does consider the question at hand, he seems to dismiss it rather quickly:

Regardless of what order the reader assembles these chapters in, however, the dramatic thrust of The Unfortunates isn’t likely to change; the writing is all first person, comma-heavy stream of consciousness. Each chapter typically corresponds to a specific recollection, such as the friends’ first meeting or the narrator’s late visit to the hospital, and while they contain beautiful passages individually, the novel’s power comes from their accumulation. Together, in whatever order, they form a dual portrait of the narrator’s attempt to write well about a dull football match, and the difficulty imposed on that goal by the haunting memories that accompany the match’s hosting city. . . .

Try reading it simultaneously with a friend, as would no doubt heighten
the touching—and entirely unromanticized—reflections on friendship that
Johnson offers. You’d be reading a physically different book as you
technically read the same one, just as the narrator reflects that,
“everything we know about someone is perhaps not the same, even
radically different from what others, another, may seem or understand
about them, him.”

Perhaps this is true–that whatever order you read it in the experience is more or less equal. But then if this is true, I wonder if Jonson didn’t fail at what he attempted. Because the book does seem to be about encountering the same person differently. Or maybe it’s really about how people are more or less the same, even when encountered differently.

I guess I should read the book for myself.

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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