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4.4 out of 5 stars17
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 9 August 2000
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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on 30 September 1999
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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on 14 April 2000
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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on 7 November 2005
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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on 20 July 2013
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 sections. This isn't a device for the sake of being tricksy, but the author wants to replicate the random and unreliable nature that our memories work.

A writer and journalist is sent to cover a soccer match in a Midlands town. As he steps off the train two hours ahead of kick-off, a host of memories rush into his head as this is a town chockfull of resonance for him. He met one of his best friends who was at University here when he had travelled up for a collaboration on student newspapers. His friend died of cancer at just 29 and the book is a series of chopped up recollections of the triangular friendship together with the man's wife, the narrator's own love life, the disease and the nature of writing itself.

As he makes his meandering progress to the football stadium, via café, butchers and pub, he recalls time spent with his friends in various towns. Sometimes the architecture eludes him as he can't pinpoint which pub or café, or sometimes the architecture itself has changed with progress. Equally he struggles to pinpoint whether the man's wife, or whichever of his own female consorts was present in some recollected event or not. As much as memory floods in on an emotional level, in its caprice some of the details are denied him and they of course can inflect his emotional response to the memory. It's interesting that one section is him finally sat in the press box, desultorily composing his report as the match proceeds, limited by both the clichéd language of sports reporting which he'd like to burst out from, plus the word limit of his column inches which pretty much predetermines what he can write even before the match kicks off and play takes what direction it will. On the inside of the box his final match report is printed, and reads very bland and lacking all the linguistic flourishes demonstrated throughout the rest of the book.

There were a couple of places where I didn't feel the narrative conceit was consistent. It was fortunate that the penultimate section I read happened to be him in the press box of the ground. What would have happened if I'd happened to read that after the `first chapter', the timing would have been way off. This did happen when an early section I read had him on the final part of his walk up to the ground, when later I read sections where he stopped off to buy some meat at a butchers. Just seemed to me that the author could have got around these timing problems easily enough but just hadn't noticed or tried.

And what of the overall effect of the narrative conceit? My path through is in all likelihood going to be different from any other reader, since their section choices will be different from mine. I think it worked well for both the horrendous rise and fall of hope as the path of the friend's cancer is traced and also that of memory's fragmentedness too. As Johnson has his protagonist comment, "yes how the mind arranges itself, tries to sort for things into orders, is perturbed if things are not sorted, are not in the right order, nags away..." This is by far the most interesting parts of the narrative as he struggles over whether it was his first visit to their house, or whether he drove as his friend had not yet passed his driving test, whether that was the occasion when he'd bought a certain book on architecture and so on. And then in the light of his friend's premature death, does any of it matter anyway? "My mind passes dully over the familiar ground of my prejudices, so much of thought is repetition, is dullness, is sameness".

Definitely an interesting read, if not a gripping one, since the subject matter is both mundane (in the sense of what is being recalled) and grim in respect of the disease. If you're interested in literary experimentation, or trying to get to grips with a more realistic mimesis of how the human mind works, I'd say read this novel. if however you are after an entertaining read for entertainment's sakes, then possibly not. It certainly sparked my creative imagination and helped me resolve a project of my own that had become stalled. The idea of a reader navigating their own path through a narrative (and not a quest or treasure-finding one) is deliciously enticing.
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on 19 June 2016
I could not see the point of a disconstructed novel.what the author was hoping to achieve by doing so? I read the "book" using the random method as recommended in the introduction. I found that although the narrative flitted back and forth it was understandable. I could help thinking why is he doing this ? Was this just a pretentious device to fool people in thinking that this is great novel, rather than rather mundane account of the early death of a friend. Someone of the typographical devices made me think has someone just accidentally leant on the space bar. The lack of paragraphs, to me, was frustrating pretentious device, I'll do this because I can mentality. Was the story better for these gimmicks I would say not. As these gimmicks haven't caught on with other authors, I feel that answers my question. I feel that I was conned by these devices.and the I wasn't lured into intellectual pretentiousness.
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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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on 7 July 2011
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. It works too. Cut this review into sentences and read them at random - you'll still get the gist, ha, although you probably won't bother to shuffle them and read it again. BS Johnson might (as Jonathan Coe's introduction suggests) be attempting to mirror the autocthony of the mind and he might have 'admired' Beckett and Joyce. But, hey, so a book meanders in the way that thoughts cluster (let's duck Nabokov's assertion that we actually think in geometric images): well... so what? Johnson has none of Joyce's etymological depth and while at times he apes Beckett's rhythms his devotion to mundane contingency puts him entirely at odds with the runnel-faced Irishman. However you cut it, ha, Johnson is a 16-stone bloke who relates tales about women whose 'maidenheads are like dried washleathers' and who denigrates an ex-girlfriend who cheated on him because she didn't know how to cook or sew. Academics are 'ignorant bastards', while it's self-evident that blokes who like beer and football and affect not to know whether Descartes lived before Byron can't be pompous - even if they write 'experimental novels' interjected with the word 'ha'. In 1969 'The Unfortunates' was presumably a modish attack on form and convention that sat ha-handsomely next to the fondue set; today it feels like the polished chip on the working-class shoulder of a country that secretly knew it was being outpaced by the literature of almost every other continent. The argument that the book deserves respect for its 'sincerity' is at best undermined by Johnson's subsequent suicide (why should his mate Tony's death be accepted as a tragedy here, when BSJ himself evidently valued life so little?); while its aleatoric novelty has been long superseded by those splendid, dice-driven 'games books' that were such a rage in the 80's and 90's. Truthfully, I'm chuffed to possess such a novelty; but then I also have a fondue set. Ha ha.
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on 6 December 2012
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. Johnson's cannon.
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on 8 September 2013
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 .
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