I’m in a pretty filthy mood as I begin this review, but I have the excellent Naked City by John Zorn on in the background to avant garde-myself into happiness. And, of course, the wonderful memories of this collection of various works by one of my favourite writers.
Well Done God! contains Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? (a collection of prose Johnson edited in the last year of his life), six plays (some for stage, some for screen, some had been previously unpublished, some still unperformed) and a selection of eighteen (I think) pieces of various other prose writings from the thirteen or so years of his professional writing career.
Aren’t You Rather… opens the book, and justifies the volume’s ultimate lack of cohesion. When editing his own work, Johnson jumped about between styles, tones, objectives and ideologies, thus thematically allowing his editors 40ish years later to do the same. Other than repeated ideas and occasionally repeated material (from texts that he didn’t publish, to be fair), there is little to hold this book together other than the shared authorship of its contents. Which is what it’s for, I suppose.
Johnson writes with great wit and intelligence on a range of topics and in a range of styles. Included are short stories, journalism, introductions to non-fiction books, book reviews and opinion pieces from various magazines, autobiographical sketches, angry polemics, musings on the history of political movements, football teams and small publishing houses, long-winded descriptions of the state of poetry and literature in the sixties… Well Done God! reflects the various interests and preoccupations that Johnson had.
He liked Chelsea football club, believed he should be paid more for his writing, his politics were left leaning, he encouraged an openness towards the discussion of sex, he was preoccupied by physical decline and the effects of gluttony on the body… He was interested in playing with words, playing with forms, adapting the novel, the film, the play, the essay, for the age that he was in. He was informed, he was engaged and he was (to some extent) prolific. His interests were wide and he worked hard, he worked hard at developing his thoughts and the way that he wrote.
For anyone with a strong interest in Johnson’s work, there is a lot to love here. Some funny jokes, some moving self-exploration (I certainly cried, but anything sets me off these days. Anything), some interesting insights into the literary scene of his time, but it is, sadly, a collection that is not drawn together by theme. I enjoyed it a lot, but I love Johnson and have read almost everything else published with his name on the cover. Not for the casual reader, not a gateway Johnson, but for the addled addict years down the line, this is a big, fat mainline hit that had tears and wry smiles fighting each other on my cheeks all day. I will read it again. But I doubt many other people would say that…