Aug 25 2016

House Mother Normal by B.S. Johnson

Mark Sussman

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Avant-garde writers tend to think that their work is unpopular because it is difficult. I tend to think there is another reason: most avant gardists sound like total jerks. They’re always telling you the things you like are bad and old, and that in order to remain relevant you need to like the new, innovative thing they’re doing. If you enjoy reading a realist novel with an engaging plot, character development, and sharp dialogue, you must be stuck in the nineteenth century. If you like imagery in your poetry, you are basically a fascist. To deny this is to demonstrate your lack of understanding, and not to understand is to be beneath contempt.

That is a slight exaggeration of a common avant garde argument, but not by much. The English writer B.S. Johnson was in many ways just this kind of radical snob. In his short life (he committed suicide in 1973 at age forty) he wrote many essays and poems, edited several anthologies, and directed experimental films, but he is probably best remembered for his innovative fiction. Most of his seven novels exploit what he called “the technological fact of the book.” He cut a hole in a page of Albert Angelo (1964), not only emphasizing the book’s material quality but also allowing the reader “see the future” (that is, the following pages). The Unfortunates (1969)—essentially a memoir about a friend's death from cancer—arrived as a pile of unbound chapters in a box; the reader is encouraged to shuffle the chapters in a random order, the better to recreate what Johnson saw as reality’s ineluctably chaotic nature.

Johnson’s writing about innovation tended to be bellicose. He thought it was a moral imperative to mess with the way stories unfolded, because he believed that the traditional realist novel “cannot be made to work for our time, and the writing of it is anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant, and perverse.” He called readerly interest in plot “primitive” and “vulgar.” In his opinion, only the avant-gardist is able to see and write about the world in a clear-eyed way. Everyone else is deluded. At times, Johnson’s rhetoric verges on the puritanical. “How can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction?” he asks. “The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically be impossible.” The only truth for him was autobiographical truth, based on one’s own experiences, however chaotic they might be.

Luckily, Johnson was a better novelist than he was a polemicist. House Mother Normal, published in 1971 and newly reissued by New Directions, is one of his most successful works, and it succeeds to the degree that it violates Johnson’s own rigid decrees about truth and fiction. It is written in the form of ten successive internal monologues delivered by eight aging residents of a retirement home and the House Mother who supervises them. Each chapter (except the final one, by the titular House Mother) spans exactly twenty-one pages, each receives its own discrete pagination, and each is preceded by a kind of stat sheet listing the physical, mental, and sensory capacity of the character delivering that particular story. We slowly come to understand what is happening inside the house through allusions made in each chapter, as we also come to understand House Mother’s tyrannical and sadistic nature. Residents clean bottles and affix labels to them—all part, we glean, of some moneymaking scam. They participate in a sadistic game that culminates in a disgusting surprise. The day’s events climax in a depraved stage show by House Mother and her dog, the details of which I’d rather not recount.

Most of the novel occurs in the distorted quarters of the characters’ minds. In various states of aging and mental deterioration, they spend the day considering both the stale, institutionalized activities of the home and the rich, in some cases raunchy episodes of their pasts. Some reminisce about their experiences during World War I, others about marriage and sex, but the present continually intrudes on them. Some residents no longer have much of a past, their brains so far gone that their chapters consist only of disjointed phrases; one is written almost entirely in single Welsh words scattered across the pages.

It is difficult to capture what makes House Mother Normal so sad and moving by pointing to individual passages. Johnson thought the novel’s unique strength was in its nontraditional presentation of interior experience, which he mimics not just with jaunty temporal jump cuts but also with white space on the page. In some ways these blank spaces are the most interesting parts of the novel, for they represent directly and vividly those forms of cognitive activity that hum below language and conscious thought. Most of what we call “thinking,” after all, doesn’t take the form of language or visualization. It feels like something, and Johnson’s writing in House Mother Normal is unusually sensitive to the distinction between describing that feeling and attempting to evoke it in the reader. For example, while enduring one of House Mother’s tedious jokes, Charlie Edwards thinks, “Laugh! On the word Laugh! you will laugh as ordered. Ha Ha Ha.” Several lines of blank space follow, and then a sentence, “I went too far after the rift with Betty,” launches a long memory of a low point following a breakup. The movement from bitter satire to painful memory feels natural and logical, the result of an involuntary memory that comes, as they tend to, unannounced. My description is inadequate, and that is Johnson’s point. Like well-placed silences in a play or film, Johnson allows time for sentences to settle, for the mood to shift seemingly of its own accord. The resulting rhythm is lovely enough to make even the most inscrutable and demented sections of the novel worth reading and revisiting.

The novel also shows just how impossible Johnson’s overall project was. He could never quite escape tradition, and House Mother suggests a painful awareness of this: It comes crashing down just when Johnson seems to realize that he has had enough of his own writerly illusions. The elaborate form, the invented memories and incidents, and all the characters who never really existed apparently come too close to fiction for Johnson. As the final chapter, House Mother’s, spills beyond the twenty-one-page limit of the others, she announces “Thus you see I too am the puppet or concoction of a writer (you always knew there was a writer behind it all? Ah, there’s no fooling you readers!).” The book, we learn, is not fiction after all, but “a diagram of certain aspect of the inside of [the author’s] skull!” One gets the feeling that Johnson realized too late that his actual strengths as a writer were totally conventional. He had empathy, an eye for detail, an ear for the language as it is actually spoken, an acid sense of humor, and a sensitivity to history’s impress on personality and feeling (as a child, he was himself evacuated from London during the Blitz). Even the fourth-wall-breaking twist at the end “reveals” what the most naive reader simply assumes: that books are reflections of the people that write them.

The problem with Johnson’s polemics and his claims about moving the novel forward is not that they are too difficult, it’s that they are too simplistic. Once he makes his point that “conventional” novels are out of step with the present reality, there’s very little left to chew on, intellectually speaking. The theoretical edifices Johnson built around himself and the abrasive persona he cultivated obscured the actual virtues of his work. The writer on display in House Mother Normal and The Unfortunates (his two best novels) seems destined to develop into something stranger and better than his theory could contain. It is a tragedy that he died so young, and for reasons that, as Jonathan Coe’s stellar biography of Johnson makes clear, we will never know. When you consider how bad he was at describing his work and its aims, it is also possible that his absence has allowed readers more room to discern what is most valuable in his work.

Johnson’s great strength was his ability to open “the inside of his skull” for us to see. The reader gets an unmediated look at the drift of his thinking as it moves from one idea to the next, from one feeling to its opposite. His writing often reads like psychic raw footage. This is itself a writerly illusion, as Johnson well knew. He revised his work like any other novelist. His hand-waving and formal experimentation seem like attempts to distract the reader from that most ordinary writing practice: craft, meaning both the production of well-hewn work and trickery. In obscuring his unique craft with gimmicks, Johnson has condemned himself to be forever known as “the guy who wrote the book in the box.” He has become the sort of writer people know about but seldom bother to read. But House Mother Normal demonstrates how much Johnson’s work can reward those who read him outside his own intentions. Spilling beyond its avant-garde trappings, the book attains a troubled intensity that makes it worth knowing, rather than simply something to know about.

Mark Sussman is a writer, teacher, and researcher living in Brooklyn.

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