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The writer B.S. Johnson (1933–1973), subject of Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant, could be mistaken for a no-holds-barred fictional creation—novelist Coe’s most inspired character yet. Those preposterous initials (and that cocky surname) suit an author whose art hinged on a fervent belief that “telling stories is telling lies,” and who regularly shifted into high dudgeon at benighted book-world denizens. (“You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke,” he began a letter to a U.S. editor.) In thumbnail his novels resemble avant-garde artifacts that no one would really write, let alone read: a book of synchronous interior geriatric monologues, of decreasing mental ability; a book with holes cut in pages; a book not a book but a box of pamphlets.
These novels are not works of fiction—or if they are, Johnson takes pains to puncture the veil. He upends the deeply felt, audaciously stylized narrative of his breakthrough novel, Albert Angelo (1964), with “OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING!”—confessing, in the final pages, that it’s all about him anyway and pointing out flaws in its attempt at real-life fidelity (“Albert defecates for instance only once during the whole of this book: what sort of paradigm of truth is that?”).
Like a Fiery Elephant is Coe’s passionate pachyderm of a biography—a tribute from a famous novelist to an obscure one, a fruitful trawl through long-forgotten documents, a reconstruction of the life and a probing if playful deconstruction of such reconstructions, and an affirmation of Johnson’s importance. Johnson could be a comic figure (as when in hectoring mode); he was ultimately a tragic one, ending his life at 39 and leaving behind his wife and two children. In its artfully fragmented structure, autobiographical inserts, and circular conceits (Coe’s most recent novel is The Closed Circle, a phrase that appears twice here), LAFE adopts Johnson’s own imperatives (all is chaos, you can only write about yourself) even while questioning them. Careful not to theorize about Johnson’s death in the book proper, Coe does so anyway in LAFE‘s spine-tingling coda—with an occult hypothesis provoked by his discovery of a revelatory first draft of Albert Angelo. It’s the sort of bravura final twist Johnson would have relished.
It’s easy to dismantle Johnson’s central contention: that since fiction and truth are by definition opposites, the former cannot contain the latter. What matters is that he could use his illusion. Of the five (of seven) BSJ novels I’ve been able to get my hands on, all are exhilarating and (save one) accessible reads. If these are experimental novels, they operate at body temperature—intimate, agonized, hilarious, deadly.
In the very dark and very funny Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry
(1973), the title character—a bookkeeper, as Johnson once was—holds a grudge against the world that evolves into terrorism, of which he thinks: “Oh, the possibilities were endless!” The same could be said for the novel form in Johnson’s hands. His technical ingenuity peaks with The Unfortunates (1969), a narrative in 27 pamphlets, all but the first and last of which can be read in any order. The book is fungible, but not just for fun; instead it’s Johnson at his most searing—a grief-stricken remembrance of his friend Tony Tillinghast, an academic who died of cancer at 29. Narrator Johnson travels to report on a football match (one of his regular gigs) and realizes the city is one he knows well, his late friend’s home. The interchangeable format reproduces the random nature of memory, as Johnson intended, and also effects other resonances. The dwindling stack of pamphlets mirrors the wasting body; the box they come in is a casket. But the book memorializes his friend’s short life by having it power a nearly infinite story—billions of novels for the price of one. Here is the beautiful collision of possibility and rigor.
Johnson’s last novel, See the Old Lady Decently, part one of the ambitious Matrix Trilogy, is as much a M striptease as the Keanu extravaganza. He filleted the narrative—which would address the death of his mother, the death of mother country England, and the “renewal aspect of motherhood”—via a detailed yet arbitrary set of organizational principles: To explain how he derived certain chapter titles (lowercase letters), he explained that they corresponded to either the third, seventh, or 15th letter of the chapter—if all these had been used, he would go “back to 1 but in . . . Greek alphabet.” He noted that “the inevitability of regeneration in all three themes” would bring the trilogy “full circle.” But he killed himself shortly after completing
STOLD (it was published posthumously in 1975), and so the Matrix lies abandoned forever.
Except that two other books have surfaced, not only completing the trilogy of regeneration even after the death of the author, but illustrating the main conceit in ways Johnson could not have anticipated. The first is Australian novelist Brian Castro’s Drift (1994), which transplants a fictionalized Johnson to Tasmania (Drift‘s two parts are titled after the unfinished Matrix books). And the second, of course, is Like a Fiery Elephant itself, after which the great writer B.S. Johnson—sad glutton, romantic obsessive, insecure genius, possible alcoholic, and finally suicide—can no longer be regarded as one of the unfortunates.