Life of Johnson

Jonathan Coe: "So what if he wasn't likable? I liked him anyway."
Donna Jackson

It's the mid-1960s and the fireworks of Late Modernism are bursting like mortar shells all around you. On one side are the jewel-encrusted works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, turning the novel into a gridlike Mondrian painting as characters swish through gilded, mirror-paneled rooms and catacombs of erotic torture. Over there, Marguerite Duras is transforming memories of an Indochinese girlhood into memento mori--elegant origami of ardor and loss. A few paces away, Jean-Luc Godard is colliding brassiere ads, gas-station billboards, and dime novels into handmade supernovas. And anywhere, everywhere you turn there is Samuel Beckett, spinning yarns of souls buried alive, Beckett striding the earth like a Shakespeare, a Dante, a Cervantes!

And you, you must contribute to the pile--but you awake into a nightmare where you have not the tools, the means, nor the words to play the game. What you have is the East London bus schedule, last week's crossword puzzle, and the football page of the Daily Mail.

You are B.S. Johnson, the squat and unhappy subject of Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant, a virtuoso biography of a forgotten footnote to the high-modernist project. A doughy, hangdog prole with a permanently hungover expression, Johnson lived out a short, unhappy life that makes the unctuous Salieri of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus look like 50 Cent striding onstage to a shower of panties.

Johnson's signature work was The Unfortunates, an exquisitely crafted, cream-colored box that contains an Opening and a Closing Chapter. Between them lie 40-odd sheaves of paper containing a multitude of chapters. Bound on both sides by Alpha and Omega, the chapters of The Unfortunates whir and spin off each other like renegade asteroids. And yet, it is reported that Johnson's uncomfortably frank editors tormented him with the obvious question: Is the writing really as good as the idea?

Johnson struggled to live out the protean, multimedia existence of his hero and mentor, Samuel Beckett. He took on BBC documentaries, basement theater productions, and attempts at aphoristic prose like some cockney Cocteau. But a look back at Johnson's work suggests a bright undergrad besotted with the works of the High Moderns, yet bereft of any contribution to make beyond a garbled, plebeian snarl.

As the grant-dependent Johnson staggers from pillar to post, one begins to feel as if Like a Fiery Elephant is one of those deadpan biographies of a fictional figure, only one devised by an Oxbridge comedy ensemble--it isn't hard to imagine the narrating voice of Michael Palin intoning, "Four more short films followed for Johnson that year, including Up Yours Guillaume Apollinaire."

Johnson bullies the missus, writes fuck-you letters to the East Faversham Fellowship for the Arts, and denounces queen and church as if perched on a high steeple--all the while waiting for Beckett's imprimatur to confer a godlike status on him, to whisk him into the company of Camus, Lawrence Durrell, and the Beatles. The buzz around Johnson turns from cool to cold to arctic--which Coe describes with sympathetic relish, turning Johnson's doodles, laundry lists, and hate mail into a symphony of thwartedness.

It doesn't sound promising to emulate Johnson's form-crushing style by accumulating found texts, gathering quotes by friends into a musical maelstrom, and leaping from first to third person like a hyperactive flea. Yet that's exactly what Coe does. It's the biographer's deep affection for Johnson's writing--B.S. was the first avant-gardist Coe discovered as a child--that keeps the book from feeling like a McSweeney's-style confection.

It's a testament to the fervor of Coe's prose that though we know the outcome--nobody will ever appreciate B.S. Johnson enough--we keep turning the pages in the hope that things will turn out differently. Somehow, the fictionist will keep the job in the Welsh college, and the easy out of self-annihilation won't beckon in the end. Coe assembles the vast materials of this elephantine book with a sorcerer's giddiness. I doubt it'll make anyone read the entirety of a Johnson novel word for word, but it does pass a generous benediction on one lost writer's father-hungry, swollen-ego'd, godhead-seeking soul.

Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:

The Barnstormer A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?

The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member

Fixing a Leak What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?

From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.

Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.

Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.

Review: Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

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