Can fiction ever tell us the truth?
It's a question that has always tantalised and tormented novelists, from Cervantes and Lawrence Sterne all the way through to Laurent Binet today. But maybe no-one has explored this question more systematically than BS Johnson. In 'Albert Angelo', Johnson uses a whole arsenal of experimental narrative devices to convey the real truth about the life of the fictional Mr Albert, a failed architect working as a supply teacher in the tough and grimy schools of early-'60s Islington. These devices become increasingly extreme as the book progresses, and they more and more insistently worry away at the paradox (and futility, and artifice) of trying to tell the truth through fiction. A 35-page section divides the text into two columns that show us a lesson that Albert is teaching and the internal monologue that's simultaneouly happening inside Albert's head. There are two brief playscripts within the text. There are narratives in first person, third person and (unusually) second person. There's a commercial break on pages 120-121. Pages 149 and 151 have holes cut in them to give the reader a preview of what's on page 153. Finally, Johnson gives up, kicks the board over, and dismisses his entire narrative as 'lying' - following which we have ten pages of self-loathing editorial comment from the author, critiquing the fiction he has attempted to create.
This all might sound intolerably gimmicky and datedly postmodern, but the strange thing is that even while Johnson is grinding our noses in the obvious artifice of his fictional creation, he nevertheless makes us fully believe in Albert, and fully empathise with his hopeless hang-ups. It's also a very funny book, undercutting the kitchen sink drama of Albert's failing life with a mordant undertow of extremely black gallows humour.
I'd warmly recommend 'Albert Angelo' as an accessible entry point into the warped, skewed and richly satisfying world of BS Johnson.