Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Johnsonian Box

11 Feb

And so here is the second post in my series on experimental fiction. That part three has been published before part two should come as no surprise. The post is, after all, about structural games…

One Saturday evening, some years ago, my friend, Gavin McIntosh and I were sitting in our favourite pub in Lincoln. Gavin is, of course, the author of the stupendous children’s/adult crossover adventure, Thunderbus, illustrated by his equally talented wife, Dahlia Lee. Back then, that pub was pretty much the hub in the city for artistic types and would-be Bohemians, ourselves included. You’ll know, the sort of place, I’m sure. I used it as the model for the pub in my novella, The Great English Novel, where my protagonist wastes his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band drinking accomplices, talking interminably about their artistic pursuits rather than actually pursuing them (see Extract 3 from ‘The Great English Novel’). Anyway, so there we were, riffing – as one does – about writing, when we hit upon the idea for a brilliant literary experiment. What if you were to write a novel, consisting of a series of loose pages inside a box, that might be re-assembled in any order? The possibilities seemed endless. Over the next hour or so, we elaborated on the idea with a series of breath-taking refinements, none of which I now remember. I do remember firing off an excited e-mail about the idea to a friend in Finland.

Wasting his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band of drinking accomplices...

Wasting his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band of drinking accomplices…

It was a couple of years later that I discovered the writing of the neglected 1960s/1970s experimental novelist, B S Johnson. I began with Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry and that led me onto The Unfortunates and to a further discovery. Our remarkable idea had already been conceived of and carried out, three decades before. Undeterred, I gave the method a try (see Johnsonian Box Experiment for the results – it’s pretty poor, but it gives you the idea!). Johnson has been ‘rediscovered’ in recent times, due – in no small part – to Jonathan Coe’s lovingly assembled biography of the novelist, Like a Fiery Elephant. Tragically, he would share the fate of another literary maverick, John Kennedy Toole. Both novelists killed themselves – at least, in part – in despair at the world’s indifference to their work. Johnson’s name also became the inspiration for that of the mythical fantasist, Bullshit Johansson in my recently completed war novel, but that’s – quite literally, in this case – another story.

Try it out for yourself. The main challenge, it seems to me, is in producing a sequence of chapter beginnings and endings that can dovetail in any order. And then you’ll have your very own random novel generator, a book that changes every time you read it. Need you ever write anything else?

All text and images © PSR 2013

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3 Responses to “Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Johnsonian Box”

  1. franny Lloyd February 13, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    That’s very interesting Paul. You’ve got me interested in your novel ‘The Great English Novel’. When you first mentioned it I was thinking, a history of…but I think it’s not like that; a novella would hold too little in that line…In my opinion you need first to develop a good strong style regardless of what you write about; once you’ve got that then it is all up to ideas and success will depend on how good these are.

    It’s sad that your colleagues killed themselves at the world’s indifference to their work; ‘at least, in part’ suggests less than bodily martyrdom for which one is grateful. Too many 20th C writers have left readers sad that they felt there was nothing to live for but the fact is, it seems to me at least, that the general market is turning its back on good (literate) writing and going head over heels for novels from the well-known, from celebs and media people. They make it seem such a casual thing to ‘bring out a book’ and I see from some sources that they often get huge advances.

    The market for experimental writing must be very small. I must admit myself that I read few contemporary writers and, always cautious, stick mainly to the told favourites in the literary tradition.

    Your challenge is an interesting one but again, afraid I must confess in shame, I’d not be up to it or anywhere near it but admire the milieu which you seem to be/have been creating centred around experimental writing. It’s not the best of times for literary writing; I read a history of working class writers centred around the workshops that became popular in the early 20th C, written by an Australian but with a good extensive account of these workshops and his opinion was that music, rock especially, had drawn young creative people away from writing and I’d be inclined to agree with this. tv too I’d suspect has taken a huge toll on the interested reader and writing. I wonder if we’re in a period of contraction or complete collapse.

    For myself I don’t think I could ever desert the writer, particularly for tv or boring irritating music that seems to have become little more than a metronomic drumbeat and visual spectacle. I’m still on Zola, and The Masterpiece at the moment and enjoying it very much but it’s very much a traditional novel of realism, the novelised biography of Cezanne the Impressionist painter. I’d look forward to reading some more about your Great English Novel and think it sounds like it would be very appealing to readers with an interest in the form and its evolution.

  2. franny Lloyd February 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    “In my opinion you need first to develop a good strong style regardless of what you write about; once you’ve got that then it is all up to ideas and success will depend on how good these are. ”

    Don’t misunderstand this. I mean the ‘you’ general, as I think you’ve got this strong ability to write good literary English and now only have to depend on ideas. A strong position to be in.

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves February 15, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    Hi Franny and thanks for your thoughts.

    I didn’t know either of those writers personally – they’re before my time, in any case! Their deaths, though, were untimely and tragic.

    I suspect that you’re right about the dumbing down process and the ultimate victory of the middlebrow and mainstream. It’s not just works of pure experimentation, though, that struggle to reach an audience due to the publishing/reviewing machine – it’s anything not set in London, failing to employ a particular set of reference points and concerns. ‘Alva and Irva’ by Edward Carey springs to mind, a book that I wish I’d written and which is currently out of print (though possibly about to come out in a new edition). Woefully under-promoted, it slipped rapidly off the radar while much less interesting works were hailed as ground-breaking masterpieces. I shall have something to say about all of this in my next post in the series. The fightback starts here!

    As for ‘The Great English Novel’, it’s an intentionally slight piece, but I believe has its charms for all that. I actually set myself the task of writing a book in which nothing happens to encapsulate a certain mindset that possesses high ambition but achieves little (as in the excerpt). The challenge therefore was to make the resultant work interesting. A publisher who rejected it, felt I hadn’t!

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