I meet periodically with a group of people in a bar in the afternoons, before the bar is open to the public. There’s a wide range of discussion, watching of Saints Football, and on occasion some tomfoolery. One of the regular attendees is a fairly staunch advocate of print books; I’m a fairly hardcore Amazon Kindle user. There’s perhaps a discussion to be had about Amazon, its ubiquity, its practices, etc. but I’m not going to do that, at least this time out. I enjoy two things about the Kindle: 1) The size and weight are the same for every book, so if I’m reading some 1000 page novel, I don’t have to find a different and comfortable position to read it in. I can simply lie on the giant beanbag in the living room and read. 2) It’s a single use device; it only displays what you’re reading, so unlike say, a tablet or phone, I’m not constantly irritated by notifications from social media, or texts, or whatever.
There are, however, a few books that benefit from or in some rare cases, require a physical format. Mark Z. Danielewiski is probably the most famous author who regularly indulges in this— he uses typography, page layouts, and the like as an integral part of his work. “Only Revolutions”, for example, had a two column layout, and could be turned upside down and (in theory) would tell the same story from two characters point of view. He recommended turning it around every few pages. It was also a highly experimental book that I came to found irritating. Danielewiski is a very clever person, doing very clever things, but in particular, “Only Revolutions” suffers from an overdose of clever.
I thought it would be neat to give my print loving friend a book that could only exist in printed form, and after doing a little reading and research, settled on “The Unfortunates”— perhaps spurred on by re-reading “Naked Lunch”. Burroughs tells the reader, near the end of the book, that “Naked Lunch” can be read in any order; I don’t agree with him, but the idea of a book that can be read in such a fashion is interesting, and “The Unfortunates” is specifically designed this way.
In physical form, it comes as a set of pamphlets in a box. Each pamphlet is a chapter, and two of the pamphlets are labeled “First” and “Last”, these are the only proscribed order. The other chapters can be physically shuffled around and read in any order. The shortest is a paragraph, the longest is around 12 pages. If that all sounds overly experimental, it actually isn’t. There’s a coherent story, and it moves in a specific direction:
A sportswriter visits a city to cover a soccer game. While he’s there, he has a variety of memories about his friend, Tony, who died from cancer, Tony’s wife, and various relationships of his own. He eats lunch, reports on the game, and leaves, while various things remind him of his friend. It’s not the most complicated plot, but more has been written about less.
Here’s the twist— the writer, B.S. Johnson, was a sportswriter (in addition to being a novelist), who visited various random cities to cover soccer games, and had a friend named Tony who died young from cancer, who he remembered while traveling to do his job. He probably ate lunch as well.
In other words, the line between novel and memoir is blurred here to the point where it may not be meaningful. Only the structure of the book turns it into something else, and, in somewhat of a paradox, the fragments are more accurate. We rarely remember things in a linear, narrative fashion. Something will remind us of an event, we may or may not dwell on it, and then we continue on.
At the very end of the book, Johnson writes:
The difficulty is to understand without generalization, to see each piece of received truth, or generalization, as true only if it is true, solipsism again, I co back to it again, and for no other reason. In general, generalization is to tell lies.
It’s apparently a summary of Johnson’s thoughts about writing. He felt that, to paraphrase the introduction included with “The Unfortunates”, that all writing should be based in truth, which would have the knock on effect of turning literature to memoir. The innovation in structure is where we as readers would have to find satisfaction. While I greatly enjoyed this book, I think this theory is a fairly horrible one. I have no desire to read book after book about writers having a headache and a feeling of lassitude on the eastern shores of a lake near where they grew up, however innovative the structure might be.
“The Unfortunates” gets away with what it gets away with precisely because of how it does it. But it’s not something that needs to be repeated. It tells a beautiful and sad story, and worth your time.