Sunday, November 01, 2015

Reading group: Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

Here's the second of my belated reading group reports:

I suggested this metafictive 1973 novel by experimental writer B S Johnson, which has always been important to me (both as a reader and writer), hoping that the group would like it too but not really expecting them to, since some, Jenny especially, have expressed a dislike for experimental novels.

To relate the story - in which seventeen-year-old Christie Malry, 'a simple man', decides to get back at a callous profit-obsessed society that does him down, recording his slights and revenges through a double-entry system of debits and credits learnt at the bank where he is first employed - is to some extent beside the point, since much of the enjoyment in this novel comes from the mischievous voice of the author, directed straight at the reader and deliberately revealing the artificiality of his story and dismantling it, openly discussing and dismissing the conventional mechanics and modes of novel-writing, and finally questioning the whole enterprise of writing a novel in the first place. In a deliberate subversion of the concept of 'rounded character', Johnson sometimes puts into the mouth of the simple Christie diction that is clearly his own, so arcane and erudite that the words need to be looked up in the dictionary (and when they are, are found to be hilariously apt), and Christie's equally 'simple' mother is given a sophisticated formal speech in which, right at the start of the novel, she writes herself out of it because, basically, Johnson is illustrating, she has outlined her narrative usefulness and to resolve her role in the plot in any more conventionally 'realist' way would be dishonest and artificial.
'We fondly believe that there is going to be a reckoning ... when the light of our justification blazes forth upon the world... But we shall die untidily ... most things unresolved... Even if we understand all is chaos, the understanding itself represents a denial of chaos, and must therefore be an illusion... My welcome is outstayed'... Christie's mother died.
Johnson tells us that any attempt he makes to characterise Christie's appearance he does 'with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a novel... What writer can compete with the reader's imagination!' and so he makes him 'average' in every physical way in order to accommodate this. However, taking us through the novelist's mental process, he goes on: 'But Christie's girlfriend! I shall enjoy describing her! Come along, what's your name, let's have your name. It'll come, like everything else. Try.'
In a further rejection of realist fiction, the story itself is deliberately over the top, increasingly and hilariously surreal as Christie avenges the smallest slights with the most elaborate and excoriating plots that culminate, finally, in mass murder.

When I came to read this novel again for the group meeting - a book that I have acknowledged as having had a profound influence, along with Grace Paley's stories, on my own more metafictive writing - I found to my surprise that I was slightly less enthusiastic than my memory of it had made me. While I recognised the first half of the novel with delight, I found that I didn't recognise the ending at all, and came to realise that I had probably never previously finished it. It's possible that it had so inspired me that I dropped it and went off to write something of my own, but I also remembered that I'd been reading it on a train journey and the journey had come to an end before I finished it, and that that journey had set in chain a series of distracting life events that would have prevented me from picking it up again. In any case, although I found the ending logical - the plot deliberately cut off and the conclusion nihilistic, the author conversing with Christie and discussing his pointlessness: ' "Christie', I warned him, 'it does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further" ', and finally, 'Xtie died' (Christie acknowledged as a mere cipher) -  I found the nihilism emotionally unsatisfying. This was perhaps because I knew now that by the time B S Johnson had written this novel he was sensing that he had written himself into a corner (his novels weren't popular, and his publisher was going cold), and that this led to his suicide very soon afterwards. For this reason, I couldn't help reading into the ending - and retrospectively by association the whole of the book - a kind of despair about the novel as a form, which was not something that as a writer I was happy to feel. Possibly also the ideas of the book were now too familiar to me for it to have the same impact the second time around.

Introducing the book at the meeting, I said this, expecting everyone to be much more down on it than I was. There was a bit of a silence that I realised was a silence of surprise, and then Jenny, of all people, said, 'I thought it was brilliant,' and there followed a chorus of agreement from everyone else present (except perhaps John who was the only other person who had read it previously, and who had had something of the same reaction as me). Ironically, the rest of the meeting consisted mainly of people praising and relishing the book with an air of defending it from me. People loved the wit, the voice of the author and his deconstructions, and found Christie's story itself hilarious, Ann and Doug thinking the latter searingly true about work within institutions and organisations, and no one could understand how a novel that was basically such fun could ever have failed to be popular. Jenny said that she was in fact surprised to find herself liking an experimental novel so much, and the group discussed why this book should have been so different. Mainly, it was decided, it was because, in spite of all the deconstructions, there are realist elements: both Christie and his girlfriend 'the Shrike' are vivid characters depicted in scenes full of relishable physical detail worthy of any realist novel, a paradox which seems to have confounded some critics, but which, after all, lock you emotionally into Christie's story  - B S Johnson's very clever sleight of hand.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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