‘Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry,’ B.S.Johnson
Before I even start this review, get it out the way: have a giggle at the title.
I certainly did.
But then ask yourself why you’ve never heard of B.S.Johnson.
(If you have heard of him, you can skip this next paragraph).
Apparently one of the leading experimental English authors of the 1960’s and 70’s, I only knew of him due to his being one of Jonathan Coe’s favourite writers. And any favourite writer of one of my favourite writers is probably going to be a favourite writer of mine, as that snappy but under-utilised English folk saying has it.
I had picked up a copy of Coe’s biography of Johnson a few years ago but never gotten around to reading it, (it is big, and not knowing anything about its subject I couldn’t justify jumping it to the front of my ever-growing ‘To Read’ list). It may have jumped a few places given how much I enjoyed this slim novel, his penultimate one from 1973…the year Johnson committed suicide.
Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that if the others which I am currently on the hunt for prove anywhere near as entertaining, he may well leap into my Top 10 favourite authors list, (along with a couple of dozen other writers).
Reminding me somewhat of Luke Rhineheart‘s ‘The Dice Man,’ ‘Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry’ also deals with a new way of forging your way through life, a new prism through which to see the pointless and random nature of existence.
In the former, you roll dice to choose from a random selection of actions you have chosen: in the latter, the eponymous protagonist decides that for everything which impinges on his freedom and/or happiness in life, life owes him for it.
There’s a building where he wants to be walking? Life owes him £0.05p.
A superior gives him a ‘tongue-lashing’? That’s a £3.50p debit.
Socialism hasn’t been given a chance to blossom in the United Kingdom? £311.398 to be credited.
How he goes about balancing the books is the ostensible drive of the story, as things escalate in a way you can probably imagine. But the genius of the book comes through the ‘experimental’ nature of Johnson’s writing, (or post-modern as it is described in the preface to my edition, since the author felt ‘experimental’ was merely another way of saying ‘unsuccessful’).
The authorial interruptions and shattering of the suspension of disbelief had me snorting out loud in the café where I read ‘Christie Malry…’ in a single, greedy seating.
“‘My son: I have for the purposes of this novel been your mother for the past eighteen years and five months’…'”
“Headlam paused to provide a paragraph break for resting the reader’s eye in what otherwise might have been a daunting mass of type…”
Of a shop which had been introduced in the previous chapter:
“‘You could go and work for the Pork Pie Purveyors Ltd,’ said Christie, ‘Now they’ve been invented’…”
Not to mention Chapter XXI, in which the author has a conversation with his protagonist, warning him that “…it does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further…”
Short, playful, fascinating: I look forward to getting through the rest of his short back-catalogue, from novels to poetry.
And some day, maybe, even reading that lengthy biography…