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The Unfortunates [Hardcover]

B S Johnson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

8 Oct 1999

A sports journalist, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when he disembarks at the railway station. Memories of one of his best, most trusted friends, a tragically young victim of cancer, begin to flood through his mind as he attempts to go about the routine business of reporting a football match.

B. S. Johnson’s famous ‘book in a box’, in which the chapters are presented unbound, to be read in any order the reader chooses, is one of the key works of a novelist now undergoing an enormous revival of interest. It is a book of passionate honesty and dark, courageous humour: a meditation on death and a celebration of friendship which also offers a remarkably frank self-portrait of its author.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (8 Oct 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330353292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330353298
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13.6 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 121,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description

Amazon Review

BS Johson's infamous book-in-a-box is, if remembered at all, notorious for its presentation rather than its content. The "book" consists of a first and last section plus 25 other chapters, each one coming as a self-contained "pamphlet", that can be read in any order the reader likes. The subject matter concerns a journalist's day covering a football match in Nottingham, remembering previous times spent in the city with a lover now gone and a friend now dead. The innovative format permits Johnson to echo the random thought processes of his protagonist--the associations and reminiscences bubbling up in no fixed order as he walks through the city, watches and reports on the match and returns home afterwards.

However, it is the quality of the writing and the affecting, deeply personal narrative that should be stressed, and is so often forgotten, when discussing Johnson's most moving work. Jonathan Coe's informative introduction explains the origins of this (semi-)autobiographical work and situates it as a forerunner to hugely successful books by the likes of Ruth Picardie and John Diamond. Certainly this conveys what an emotionally engaged book The Unfortunates is, and is a useful rejoinder to the barely veiled negativism of the charge of being avant-garde, but it doesn't place Johnson alongside the peers with whom he should be judged. Johnson is a writer in the league of Beckett and William S Burroughs, an experimentalist but one whose humanity, and sheer skill, shine through. The Unfortunates, the book he wrote as a response to his friend Tony Tillinghast's death, on the back of a promise to him to "get it all down, mate," is a wonderfully honest book about friendship and loss. That it comes in a box should not blind us to the fact that as a writer Johnson was peerless and as a novel this is truly first-rate. --Mark Thwaite

About the Author

B. S. Johnson (1933–1973), an admirer of Joyce and Beckett, was a novelist whose works combine verbal inventiveness with typographical innovations. His works include Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), The Unfortunates (1969), House Mother Normal (1971) and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent. Human. Honest 9 Aug 2000
By A Customer
This is a right odd book - it comes in a box and consists of 27 loose leaf sections which, apart from the first and last sections, the reader is encouraged to read in a random order. The story begins when the narrator steps off the train in an unidentified East Midlands City on his way to an assignment to report upon the City V. United match. He begins to recognise the city and, upon searching his memory, reminisces about how his old friend Tony had once lived here. What follows (in an entirely random order) is a heart-rending tale about his friend's battle against cancer. The narrator's respect for Tony and his battle is apparent thoughout the book, yet his honesty about his own selfishness in his attitude to Tony's slowly fading life is, at times horrifying - largely because we can probably see a part of ourselves in the character traits he displays. This is one of my favorite books partly because of the way it portrays a city that I have known and loved, but primarily because it is so human
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
So, is this timely reprint produced in a box of loose sections like the original? I hope so. This is Johnson's infamous 'random' novel; the first and last sections are specified, the other twenty-odd can be read in any order.
But, more than just an experiment for the sake of it, this is a very fine novel indeed, the form arising organically from the subject matter.
Johnson's subject is bereavement, time and loss. The narrator, a football reporter, is sent to the city where his friend once lived. His friend is now dead from cancer. The book's form echoes the random workings of memory, as, through interior monologue, a story of regret and immense sadness is slowly unpeeled. Perhaps the random form is also an attempt to defy the finality and linearity of time?
Ironically, at the end of this day of painful recollections, the (public) result is a succinct report of a very dull football match.
Johnson's ear for language is spot on as ever. Highly evocative, the book is never sentimental, yet always poignant. And somehow it also manages to avoid being depressing.
This is my second favourite novel of all time (after Alasdair Gray's 'Lanark') - highly recommended.
Mike Alexander,
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Books which monkey around with the reader's affections and attention - by all sorts of people, from Sterne to Italo Calvino - infuriate and inspire in equal measures. Johnson's novel is an example of a book of this type that actually delivers an emotional punch. What's more, the interactive format (which allows the reader to shuffle all sections save the first and last into an order of his or her choosing) says something genuinely profound about the way our minds work: it's strange how we construct linear story even when the elements of story are crazily jumbled. Johnson's is a brilliant yet also deeply human novel, and it would be a fitting tribute to this fine but neglected writer if Picador were to enhance the initiative they've taken in reissuing the title in harback by issuing a paperback (or should that be "paper bag"?) version.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very true to itself...... 7 Nov 2005
By A Customer
Reading this 'novel' was an experience for me, being the first BS Johnson book I have read. 'Read' however is perhaps not the right word, as it is really more absorbing someone else's memories. The format of loose leaflets to be read in any order appealed to me, as it was far more true to the reality of human memory. If I think of anyone I've known, I inevitably remember them as scenes or fragments at different times and different places.
This is well worth a read, even if you are unsure of the unorthodox style.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable 14 May 2009
Firstly, a warning: Don't try to read this book on the bus or the train - you will get some very strange looks indeed.

"The Unfortunates" looks incredible - a paperback-sized box, inside which are twenty-seven thin pamphlets, the smallest of which is a single sheet, the thickest only twelve pages. One of the pamphlets is marked "FIRST", another "LAST", but the rest are unmarked and can be read in any order. This is why you can't read it on the bus or the train - it is a little awkward pulling leaflets out of the box, plus people wonder what on earth you are doing! Besides, the package is too attractive to treat with anything other than kid gloves.

So what is it about? Before I bought the book I had an idea that something so unstructured as this could only be dealing with a fragmented topic, such as memories or reminiscences, and that's exactly what "The Unfortunates" is. The book opens with a journalist (Johnson) arriving in a town to cover a football match, and he suddenly starts to remember an old friend who was killed by cancer. Each of the subsequent pamphlets covers a particular scene from his life, and they can indeed be read in any order. The writing is superb, sometimes tender, sometimes angry, sometimes laugh-out-loud amusing, but always excellent.

For fans of experimental fiction this is a stunning piece of work; for casual readers it could be a little overwhelming, but is absolutely worth the effort.

Now to find the rest of Johnson's work...
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars gimmick outshines and spoils what could have been a good novel
"the gimmick outshines and spoils what could have been a good novel" "Some parts are certainly well written and poignant and might have been more moving had I not lost... Read more
Published 1 month ago by steve
5.0 out of 5 stars Daughter pleased !!!
Purchased this unusual 60's lost classic for my daughter . She is studying and is very interested in 'experimental writing ' . This book is a perfect example of this genre .
Published 11 months ago by H. Lloyd
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Experiment
A book that comes in a book-shaped box! Twenty-seven sections, one labelled `first', one `last' and the reader is free to choose the order in which they read the interceding 25... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Genome
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
I really enjoyed the book, I like the loose sections and the way it can be read in almost any order, a real classic. I am going to work my way through the rest of B.S. Read more
Published 21 months ago by martin
5.0 out of 5 stars Kaleidoscopic Literature
So that's why I liked The Unfortunates.

And unlike so many books I've read, It can be a different book, again, and again. Read more
Published on 18 Dec 2011 by Captain Tryps
3.0 out of 5 stars Had me tied up in Notts...
This is indeed a box containing 25 unbound chapters that you are encouraged to read in any order - so long as they are braced within a designated first and last chapter. Read more
Published on 7 July 2011 by Sporus
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