Book Review Creative Prose

The Effectiveness of B. S. Johnson’s Formal Experimentation in the Creation of a Readable Truth

fuck all this lying


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I . . always with I . . one starts from . . one and I share the same character . . are one . . . . . one always starts with I[1]

So begins Bryan Stanley Johnson’s third novel, Trawl. It features an autobiographical protagonist attempting to order his thoughts and memories whilst travelling as a “pleasuretripper”[2] on board a deep sea fishing boat. It is a text deeply focused on the self, written in a stream of consciousness style and boasting a conspicuous openness to sexuality, a tendency towards digression and repeated admonitions against its form. It is a self-involved book, its intention to consider the protagonist’s entire past, hence the opening – the “I” of the writer/narrator is the focus from the very first word. Johnson did not write about himself because he was an egotist (though this may have been a factor), but because the key conceit of his output was the evocation of truth, and the person he knew best and was thus able to most accurately render in prose was himself.

Johnson’s motto was “telling stories is telling lies”[3], a concise sound bite condensing a somewhat confused intellectual position. For though Johnson did not want to be a liar, he did want to be a novelist, and as much as he tried to avoid the alleged indiscretions of plot and fictionalisation, even in his most personal texts he conceded this ultimate goal in pursuance of literary cohesion. The following essay will discuss his formal experimentation given that its purpose was always to develop a sense of truth. By focusing on his distinctly autobiographical novels, Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966) and The Unfortunates (1969), the diffuse methods he applied will be considered, and key too will be reflection upon the various essays he wrote explaining his aesthetic.

Johnson wished to be a writer of truth; he wanted to honestly and openly explore lived experience, hence the swift gravitation towards evocations of his own life. His desire for “truth”, and what he meant by the term, altered as his career progressed, but from page 163 of Albert Angelo, he made his overall intentions explicit. Breaking out of a narrative constructed through an array of experimental devices with, “OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING!”[4], Johnson exposed his fiction and began his attempts to make amends.


  1. fuck all this lying

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Albert Angelo[5] is largely about identity. The eponymous protagonist is a man in his late twenties who wishes to become an architect, but (for financial reasons) works as a supply teacher, a role Johnson was familiar with.[6] Albert self-defines by the career that he wants, not by the job that he has. Early in the text, he recalls explaining this to his mother:

I am an architect, not a teacher, and I will not tie myself to a term’s notice even though it does mean the insecurity and constant changing of schools involved in supply work. She does not understand.[7]

Key to Albert’s sense of self is this identification as an architect. Though it could be argued that he has the potential for architectural success at the novel’s opening, it is clear that as someone who teaches, Albert is a teacher. His mother, he thinks, “does not understand”, but neither does he. An architect designs buildings, a teacher teaches: Albert only does the latter, thus his parents, who identify him by his actions rather than his hopes, do not see him as he sees himself. Albert’s self-image is rooted in the assertion of a future identity, whereas acquaintances, colleagues, family members and school children all define him by his present: he is a teacher. The repetition of “not” is significant, and in the remainder of the paragraph it occurs elsewhere, as do other negative words such as “never” and “less”. Albert self-identifies by distancing himself from his actions, rather than defining himself by proof. He denies an applied title, but offers no evidence to support his asserted other.

His identity as an architect though, is supported by the text through its focus on architecture. All descriptions of place are rooted in buildings, and though this is perhaps expected for an urban novel, the structures Albert exalts are indicative of the novelist’s wider aesthetic interests. The Hammersmith flyover is described as “a fine piece of architecture” (21), and Albert remarks of post-war residential buildings, “Some of the tower blocks are very good in their own right” (40). Neither of these would have been popular opinions, for, as Johnson wrote, “The weight of prejudice against anything new is enormous and deeply rooted.”[8] Johnson liked the new and approved of technological change, but more significantly he believed that form must be appropriate to function. His architect-protagonist is most impressed by functionalist architecture, as Johnson himself was[9], because he felt this to be more appropriate for the modern world. Johnson also believed that the format of books should match their content, so Albert Angelo includes a photocopy of a flyer, dialogue presented as script, a letter, a poem, a series of descriptions of Albert written as if by children, and changes between first, second and third person in the prose sections. The purpose of each device is to aid believability in the “truth” of Albert. Yet, although Johnson wanted his readers to understand his protagonist, he felt he was committing a disservice to his ideals, because Albert was not real. Thus, Johnson screamed an obscenity in block capitals and opened a new section: ‘Disintegration’.


  1. trying to say something

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Johnson thrust himself into the heart of his writing in 1964 with all the subtlety of “a firy elephant”[10] (160) and debunked the majority of Albert Angelo as “lying”. This evocative verb, synonymous with childhood accusations and simplified notions of “good” and “bad”, makes a profound impact, particularly when contrasted with the phrase “trying to say something”, which is repeated four times on page 167 alone. “Lying” is the opposite of saying something, posits Johnson: there is no value in words unless they are true. “[I]f I start falsifying in telling stories then I move away from the truth of my truth which is not good” (168). But by this point, a long way through a fictionalised novel, he had already falsified a lot. Yet by acknowledging this distance from “[his] truth” and “disintegrating” the text, he believed he was crafting richer honesty. Johnson defined what he was trying to write as “the truth of my truth”. The “my” creating a problematic sense of inconsistency – it is not, as may perhaps have been presumed, a figurative, universal truth, nor even a literal truth[11], but his truth, a private, personal, socio-historical one. And by rendering it through the fictionalised cipher of Albert, Johnson believed himself intrinsically diminishing that honesty. Turning personal experience into words is a translation already from thought and memory, but this is transmuted further from its origins when placed inside a fictional character. By making Albert Angelo more literary, Johnson damaged the overarching intention of his work, which was recreating in literature the life he had lived.

The authorial incursion serves to redeem the novel. “I have to write, I have to tell the truth, it’s compulsive,” (168) he states, and by following this compulsion, Johnson became, in a more abstract sense, “true” to himself. Because of the ‘Disintegration’, Johnson became comfortable with himself as a topic for literature. A few pages later (170-173), he catalogued the “lies” in the novel, the substitutions he made and the reasons why some had occurred. In including this purging confessional, Johnson lifted the burden of his “lies”, and with this release of an unveiled self came the courage to extend his presence further, hence his following two novels. As he wrote elsewhere, “Why ‘invent’ characters when you know yourself much better?”[12], a statement he would rigidly adhere to during the composition of Trawl.


  1. memories […] caught by the filter

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Trawl is a novel about the self, a theme heralded by its first word. Located near the bottom of a mostly blank page and separated from the rest of its sentence by two dots, “I” stands out, isolated, alone. In this text the narrator, Johnson, has isolated himself on board a fishing trawler. The purpose is never fully discussed, but the closest direct admission appears thus:

They [the fishermen] did not seem curious as to why I was going to sea: which fortunately saved me inventing reasons: I could not just say, I want to give substantial yet symbolic form to an isolation I have felt […] by enacting the isolation in an extreme form[13]

His actions are symbolic as well as literal, time on the boat offering the opportunity to trawl through memories: a simple metaphor, but not inefficient. The physical isolation created by water, distance and lack of communication is complemented and completed by the social isolation on board. The fishermen’s lack of curiosity shows that Johnson has been viewed as so distinct from their world that his tourism is not absurd, merely the behaviour of someone intrinsically other. After stating his struggle for an expression of motive, he continues with his thoughts and creates one. Though this increases the believability of the novel’s stream of consciousness form and parallels the thematic heart of the text – by thinking through a problem a solution may be found – it simultaneously draws into focus the inconsistencies within the character. This could be viewed as a further attempt at evoking truth (for real people are inconsistent), but could also be considered a lie, yet not the most significant one contained within this apparently honest novel.

The text presupposes the present of the writer-narrator to be on the trawler. Memories are explored with the noise of fishing machinery “CRAANGK!” (8 and many others) as a regular interruption, with seasickness a frequent distraction and brief conversations and on-board experiences affecting cogitation. This is the literary truth of the novel – that Johnson is at sea, thinking. However, as the novel was written later (completed just over two years after the voyage)[14], this is not true. In keeping with his own ideology, by telling the story of his trip reminiscing on a trawler, Johnson is lying. By pretending that the text is the literalised contents of his mind as he sails on cold Northern seas, the reader must make the kind of concession to literary imagery that the ‘Disintegration’ of Albert Angelo preached against. As a conceit, Trawl has a strong central image: an unhappy man, isolated from his present by his interest in his past, takes a purging journey amongst a group of strangers into storm-filled seas. There is something Classical in the motif, and echoes too of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Malcolm Lowry: applying a traditional idea to 20th-century issues of wartime, sex, being a student, working in an office, drinking with friends, is a further modernisation of the form. As too is the use of stream of consciousness. But this is a literary technique; this is turning experience into story, departing from Johnson’s rule. After only one book the definition of “truth” has morphed: Johnson seeks “his truth” much more than “Truth” itself.

He reminisces about a pet cat: “I called him Winkie. I expect this was because he kept blinking. I could check on that. My mother would know. When I return.”[15] Literally, this is a lie, for the text was written in London with the author’s mother only a few miles away:[16] the fact could have been checked and incorporated. In deliberately refusing to research, but by indicating the (fictional) later potential to do so, Johnson furthers the “truth” of the novel. What he is attempting to evoke is his experience on the trawler, and acknowledging his ignorance of easily checkable facts emphasises the narrator’s isolation and distance from both his past and dry land. This expands the truth as read in Trawl, whilst cementing the fictionalised lie.

Other than further allusions to inaccessible facts, the strongest method used to maintain truth[17] is discussion of memory. In the midst of a scene featuring impressively open sexual detail[18], the narrator breaks away to state, “I should remember, everything would help, if I could, but I cannot, no matter, I cannot recall what I cannot recall” (16). For a text structured around in-depth explorations of a protagonist’s memory, an early admission of the fallibility of mental function is significant. The blunt stating of fact, “I cannot recall what I cannot recall”, binds to the text the idea that once a memory is lost, it will not return. Trawl is not about reconstructing repressed memories, but an open evocation of known prior life.

Memories gain potency through longevity, Johnson believed. “Other memories are caught by the filter. I shall only think them, since everything must be considered, not discuss them with myself. I think I have the important thing.” (52) Johnson does not claim to be recording every previous experience, and alludes to “other memories” being contemplated. The “filter” is his consciousness, and a filter, by definition, separates. If certain memories are caught, others must pass through. The “everything” that the narrator “considers” is only what remains, and of this, only some memories are selected for “discussion”: the text contains only what he remembered and felt to be significant. In inferring that memories that last always hold significance, he creates another inconsistency: as a writer searching for truth, he should mourn the lost moments of his life, rather than rejoice in what remains. In accepting what is permanently lost and ignoring the hole in his truth, Johnson’s presumption that the remnants are significant was hopeful, and lacking justification.


  1. This does not have to be a documentary

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The form of Trawl, however, is harder to fault. Johnson writes of his method, “This is all very loose. Is there no other way? Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ No other way: the other ways have all been tried. Ÿ Ÿ No other way.” (55-56) Johnson decrees stream of consciousness to be the most effective method of accurately conveying the sense of a life. His belief that “Life is chaotic, fluid, random”[19] is best represented by long, flowing sentences and skipped punctuation, digressions and few paragraph breaks. “All the other ways have been tried”, he writes, but so had this one, famously by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, to say nothing of Johnson’s generation. He was not creating anything stylistically new, but he was continuing the proliferation of a technique he believed to be of the utmost importance. “Joyce is the Einstein of the novel”[20], he wrote, and he appropriated the earlier novelist’s development not as intellectual plagiarism, but because he felt it could not be ignored. Literature had been changed by Ulysses, Johnson believed, and prose evocations of the psyche of one person must be written like Joyce’s exploration of Molly Bloom.[21]

The theme of fallible memory is complemented by form: reminiscences are not written in a linear, chronological order, and when mistakes are made, it is not important: “this piece is out of order. No matter.”[22] The blasé approach to time and accuracy diminishes literal truth, but evokes further the truth of a man lost in thought. This quotation refers to an anecdote about a light childhood misdemeanour whilst Johnson was an evacuee. To Johnson, the order of single incidents during this time is not important. The sense of isolation, his distance from London and ignorance of the wider meanings of war are the significant themes, and a momentary reversal of time does not detract from those. Elsewhere in the book he writes, “This does not have to be a documentary. Dates are rarely important”(56), and here falls the crux of Trawl.

Johnson created a dichotomy between factuality and truth, because his truth did not have to contain all available facts. As he evoked a sense of the built urban environment to ground Albert Angelo, in Trawl he created awareness of the fallibility of memory and delved into an incomplete collection of prior experiences to create a personal impression of existence. Details, including times, are less important, “my father drove us in a hired Vauxhall– Ÿ Ÿ What interest is that?” (115). Compare this to the revelation within Albert Angelo that “it is a Morris Minor not a Fiat we park in Wellclose Square”[23] and it is clear that this kind of detail-laden, literal truth is no longer what he wants. In the earlier work, Johnson listed every business along certain streets, transposed the entire register of a school class, relying on detail to convey an understanding of life. But this is unnecessary in Trawl, because it is inner existence, a psychological, cognitive truth that is expounded, and small facts and figures are not significant.

Johnson’s rules differ between books, but within each consistency is maintained: the content and its function are mirrored by the form, and the growing control of memory and reinvigorated sense of self are what constitute the conclusion of Trawl. “I make an effort to believe him: I believe him” (172) is the narrator’s response to an anecdote told by a fisherman, a sign of mental control, an ending to an exploratory novel where the intended “demons” have been purged. Johnson has recounted and reflected and has been improved. “The piece ends, coda, resolution” (174), he thinks as he listens to music over the ship’s radio[24], and this is true for the novel. Albert Angelo has a brief section after ‘Disintegration’, ‘Coda’, where Albert is murdered. It is unsatisfying and unnecessary, as the text has already fragmented, the resolution ‘Coda’ pretends to offer has already been denied. Trawl concludes with a narrator satisfied and optimistic, a considered, literary resolution that closes the narrative and offers uplifting future possibilities: a rather traditional ending for a supposedly revolutionary novel.


  1. I’ll get it all down, mate

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Zulfikar Ghose, a poet and close friend of Johnson’s, wrote in 1985 that Johnson “could never disguise his feelings; if he felt rotten, his face showed it”[25], and nowhere in his writing is feeling more apparent than in The Unfortunates. This novel features the most drastic of his formal experiments: its chapters are individually bound and presented in a box. Johnson believed that the chaos of existence (“Life does not tell stories […] it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily”[26]) is “directly in conflict with the technological fact of the bound book [… which] imposes an order”[27]. He decreed that order in prose is false, and in an attempt to represent the chaos of consciousness he created a novel whose chapters could be (mostly) read in any order. The designated first chapter describes the decline of Tony Tillinghast, but poses the question, “how can I place his order, his disintegration?”[28], a question Johnson immediately answered with physical clarity by indicating that he could not.

Although Tony’s disintegration could easily be ordered in a literal respect (he developed cancer, failed to respond to treatment and became more ill until he died), the truth Johnson is trying to convey is not this chronological decline, but the truth of an afternoon plagued by disordered memories in his dead friend’s old city. The structure is an attempt to replicate the confusion of that afternoon, where linear narratives could not apply to the emotional, reminiscing, Johnson.

The fallibility of memory is again a theme, but in a development from Trawl, Johnson acknowledges that what remains of Tony is not necessarily the most important. He recalls, “Tony came in and said he was cooking fish fingers, he said they tasted okay if they were fried, a curious thing to remember, all memories are curious, for that matter, the mind as a             think of an image                           “p”[29] There is nothing significant revealed in Tony’s tolerance (“they tasted okay”) of fried fish fingers, and Johnson concedes that this is “a curious thing to remember”. However, by its inclusion, he imbues it with thematic and literary importance, offering a more realistic appraisal of Tony through incorporation of the trivial. As in Albert Angelo, Johnson creates truth through detail, yet also laments the failure of his memory to elevate his friend. But if everything the remembered Tony spoke was verbose academese offering insightful opinions, this would feel unrealistic and dehumanise him. Describing a man who discusses the preparation of fish fingers offers no false glamorisation, grounding the relationship of Johnson and Tony in the prosaic – eating, and what is eaten – thus creating a more believable truth. As in Trawl, memories are presented that are not of intellectual or emotional interest to Johnson, but they are not dismissed, for Tony’s death has altered them. Tony and Bryan will never again chat about frozen food, thus the memory of when they did has become precious, even though the moment was not. The lack of new memories is upsetting: Johnson’s refusal to ignore this scrap shows his grief. The extract’s ending – “think of an image”, followed by a large gap then an unrelated sentence, shows that literary convention is again being ignored. Johnson leaves his metaphor incomplete, because its completion would achieve nothing, emphasising the importance of the emotional content rather than the language.

The critic Paola Splendore offers an alternate opinion to the assertion that emotion is central to the text, stating that “Whatever his subject, Johnson’s real subject was ‘writing’”[30]. And even here, in a novel about death, The Unfortunates does explicitly discuss writing. Johnson worries about the effects of his sports journalism[31]:

Does this bloody reporting affect, destroy even, my own interest in language, sometimes I feel I have           mislaid perhaps, not lost, something through this reporting, using under the pressure of deadlines the words which first come into my head, which is not good[32]

Immediacy is objected to, yet in the 1960s many writers[33] were experimenting with automatic writing as an intellectually justified method of creating honest prose. Johnson, in Trawl and much of The Unfortunates, seeks the same intended effect: the exposure of (sub-)consciousness. His dismissal of immediacy as a corrupting force is diametrically opposed to writers whose works, whether deliberately or not, Trawl has much in common with. Trawl frequently reads like automatic writing, yet Johnson conspicuously criticises a methodology his work tries to represent by design. This is another discrepancy between Johnson’s ideology and his literature: in asserting that words thought at the moment of experience are not the most honest to express it, he justifies the composition of Trawl and The Unfortunates (both of which feature a present distinct from the present of writing from which reminiscence occurs), but also creates a possibility for falsehood. He risks the expansion of the breach between the “then” of the focus and the “now” of the writing by trusting more in considered than immediate language, further guaranteeing that “his” truth is artifice: a crafted, traditional verisimilitude that his essays state is not sufficient.

However, when Johnson’s formal experimentation and interest in textual composition is not focused upon, it is possible to see great wells of emotion within his works. On a page that opens with the acknowledgement of Tony’s cancer as terminal (“They had I think done all they could for him”[34] – even here, “I think” prevents Tony’s imminent death being discovered without awareness of the narrator), Johnson remembers, “Tony and I talked seriously, sadly […] There was I remember great comfort for me in what he said […] This is banal. What did he actually say?”[35] Grief is hidden behind anger at the inefficiencies of memory. Referring to what lingers as “banal”, the closing question is aimed at the writer, not a reader. As it has been conceded that the memory is lost, the question is an admonition: “I fail to remember, the mind has fuses.”[36] Yet again, Johnson states that the brain is fallible. This anger at the self occurs immediately after the reveal of Tony’s hopeless condition. In a moment where a bereaved narrator could wail over a lost friend, Johnson avoids direct emotion and rages instead against memory.

Avoidance of sentiment happens throughout, and it is the deliberate shunning of abject expressions of grief that reveals the extent of Johnson’s feeling. One of the most open comments is, “his death makes me feel guilty that I do not value every word he ever said, every moment I knew him. Anyway,”[37] here sentimentality is rapidly absconded from with the turning “Anyway”. His guilt is characterised by the present tense refusal to “value every word”: even in hindsight there is no pleasure in remembering Tony’s conversation of departmental politics, as Johnson does at this point. He is keen to show he has not become irrational – he does not want to rescind his opinion of a dull conversation, but in doing so he finds a fault within himself. He misses his friend’s conversation, but will not lie about its intrinsic value. Johnson is aware that bereavement makes people less balanced and wants to avoid bias, but his subject-changing “Anyway” shows that he not only feels guilt for his lack of caring, but also for the guilt itself. Johnson could not proudly espouse the ridiculousness of altered opinions, and wanted to dwell neither on his shame nor his inability to defend it. He didn’t want to be sentimental, desiring balance and emotionless hindsight, but this is impossible because he did care – he cared enough to write an entire novel about Tony, which more than anything in the text indicates how affected he was. A lot of critical interest has been paid to the format of The Unfortunates, but very little to its actual existence. This, and his promise to Tony, “I’ll get it all down, mate”[38], emphasises the real truth of this text: that B. S. Johnson, no matter how sombre and theoretical he tried to appear, felt deeply about the death of his friend.


  1. convention has failed

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Much of The Unfortunates is an exploration of the contradictions of memory. In a chapter detailing his final visit to Tony, Johnson learns that his friend has been speaking to a local vicar.

I was not going to allow Tony to back out now, it would be a negation of everything he stood for, […] it upset me […] The father was I think offended, perhaps he did not know the things his son stood for, to me, everything we know about someone is perhaps not the same, even radically different from what others, another, may see or understand about them[39]

This discussion of Tony’s ideology is centred on the author (see the repetition of “I” and “me”), and this perception of his friend as firmly non-religious is different to how Tony’s father sees him. Johnson views deathbed conversations with clergy as a rejection of the identity Tony possessed, a signifier of his friend’s erosion by illness. The physical signs, “he was grossly altered […] his face had shrunken”[40] are nothing compared to the significance of a spiritual decline. Tony’s father wants the death to be as simple as possible, for Tony is a dying man and his son; yet for Johnson, Tony is a symbol: an intellectual, a critic who helped with the composition of Travelling People[41] and a friend he conversed, wrote and ate fish fingers with. His relationship with Tony is so vested with ideas that he struggles to comprehend that letting the dying man speak to a vicar, if he wants to, is kinder than holding him to former opinions. Johnson is unwilling to let Tony change – it is unpleasant to see his personality (as perceived by Johnson) diminish; yet on reflection, Johnson concedes the limitations of personal opinion, emphasising that “Tony” in The Unfortunates is only accurate if considered within Johnson’s truth. His book does not claim to be unbiased, and acknowledging that his Tony could be “radically different from what others, another, may see or understand about [him]”, Johnson avoids the necessity of justification, this is Johnson’s Tony, his life rendered into Johnson’s truth.

With The Unfortunates, Johnson elevates a life into literature, and concedes it as an overblown tribute. It contains an entire paragraph about a whisk Tony gave him as “a belated wedding present”[42], such a boring object to consider but, as Johnson remarks, “the fact of his death influences every memory of everything connected with him.”[43] The novel is an attempt to write down “everything connected with” Tony. It is “the fact of his death” that has caused The Unfortunates to be written, as it was Johnson’s sense of isolation that created Trawl and his disillusionment with fiction that led to Albert Angelo. Johnson’s three most personal novels are written on subjects that moved him. He exposed himself to express his truth, and here that truth is how “the fact of [Tony’s] death” made him feel. Which was confused, illogical and sad. The death corrupted his memories so much that he lost control of their order and the rationality surrounding thoughts of Tony, and this is why the book is unbound. If Johnson had believed this was the best way to present all literature, he would have insisted on it for his later books, but he didn’t. He defended his book-in-a-box until he died, because this format was particular to its content. He wrote, admittedly in 1965, “Each of my books is a specific solution to a specific set of problems”[44] and if this is taken as a continued literary stance, it corroborates the above assertion. One afternoon, he wandered through Nottingham a mess of conflicting and uncontrollable thoughts, and the arbitrary nature with which the resultant novel may be read intends to replicate the incompatibility of emotional memories and traditional mental ordering. “The fact of [Tony’s] death” made logical comprehension impossible, and Johnson crafted a non-conventional book, complete with theoretical justification, to convert his feelings into words.


  1. so much about technique and form

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In a late essay Johnson stumbled upon what is still the most recurrent criticism of his work[45]: “in writing so much about technique and form I am diverting you from what the novels are about, what they are trying to say”[46]. All of Johnson’s novels, not just those discussed above, directly consider their composition, and within each, form and technique are difficult to ignore. Visually, the dense prose of Trawl reveals its stream of consciousness style; with The Unfortunates, a reader constantly engages with the form by holding a box filled with unbound papers; and the sudden ‘Disintegration’ of Albert Angelo is heralded by two explicit exclamations.

The critic Philip Tew wrote, in reference to contemporary reviewers’ shock at the word “fuck”, “The double, desperate profanity repeated across two sections evokes such a fundamental mood and sense of purpose, is so bald and raw that few other words would suffice contextually”.[47] He defends its suitability due to the violent assault Johnson is committing against the normative expectations of literature, but ignores the word’s significance as vernacular slang and thus the exact sort of language a working class Londoner would use to express outrage at the state of contemporary fiction.

Johnson acknowledged the distracting risk of his techniques, and reiterated that his works were “trying to say” something, this something a shared experience of truth. For when he tries to replicate his experience through stream of consciousness, changes in style, violent disintegrations and unbound books, “the underlying intention is always deadly serious”.[48] Johnson was not shy of writing about himself, or of formal experimentation, and when one reads through his techniques and theories, there exist moments of great insight and deep personal truth. A paragraph about the importance vested in a whisk and a fearlessness to admit this shows the depth of feeling Johnson possessed. The Unfortunates is not structured as it is to distance the reader from the (often) sentimental truth of Johnson’s grief, but to replicate the maze of disintegrated confusion of his first visit to Nottingham after Tony’s death. Trawl is not lacking in truth for the intrinsic lie of its supposed writing at sea, for it recreates the idea of Johnson’s thoughts as they happened. Albert Angelo disintegrates because Johnson was dissatisfied with speaking about himself through a fictionalising veil. He kept that veil off for the rest of his career, bravely and brazenly. He stuck to his principles (though they may not have been as solid as he believed them to be) and continued to experiment with form because he believed that as no two stories are the same, no two stories should be written the same way. He conveys truth through his honesty and an earnestness to be honest through form. Johnson’s prose is moving, poetical and frequently funny, and when it does something unexpected there is always a reason, even if it is obtuse. Johnson relentlessly pursued “truth”, and what is commendable is that his search for a perfect way to express it lasted his entire career.



Two brief notes regarding referencing:

  1. The B. S. Johnson Omnibus, from which I have taken quotations from Albert Angelo and Trawl, enumerates page numbers separately for each novel.
  2. When referencing The Unfortunates, which is presented in unbound sections in a box, I have included the opening words of the chapter concerned before giving a page number.



Anonymous (1963) ‘Review of Travelling People by B. S. Johnson’, Books and Bookmen, 9 (8), p. 37.

Coe, Jonathan (2005) Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. London: Picador.

Conrad, Joseph (2007) The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and Other Stories, Simmons, Allan H. and Stape, J. H. (eds). London: Penguin.

Davies, David John (1985) ‘The Book as Metaphor: Artifice and Experiment in the Novels of B. S. Johnson’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 72-76.

D’Eath, Paul M. (1985) ‘B. S. Johnson and the Consolation of Literature’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 77-81.

Figes, Eva (1985) ‘B. S. Johnson’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 70-71.

Ghose, Zulfikar (1985) ‘Bryan’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 23-34.

Johnson, B. S. (2004) Albert Angelo in B. S. Johnson Omnibus. London: Picador.

Johnson, B. S. (1963) ‘Anti or Ultra’, Books and Bookmen, 9 (8), p. 25.

Johnson, B. S. (1985) Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. New York: New Directions.

Johnson, B. S. (2004) House Mother Normal in B. S. Johnson Omnibus. London: Picador.

Johnson, B. S. (1975) See The Old Lady Decently. London: Hutchinson.

Johnson, B. S. (1999) The Unfortunates. London: Picador.

Johnson, B. S. (1964) Travelling People. London: Transworld Publishers.

Johnson, B. S. (2004) Trawl in B. S. Johnson Omnibus. London: Picador.

Johnson, B. S. (2013) Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Coe, Jonathan, Jordan, Julia and Tew, Philip (eds). London: Picador.

Joyce, James (2008) Ulysses, Johnson, Jeri (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kanaganayakam, C. (1985) ‘Artifice and Paradise in B. S. Johnson’s Travelling People’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 87-93.

Lowry, Malcolm (1975) Ultramarine. London: Penguin.

Mackrell, Judith (1985) ‘B. S. Johnson and the British Experimental Tradition: An Introduction’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 42-64.

McGonigle, Thomas (1985) ‘No Future’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 98-100.

Melville, Herman (2002) Moby Dick. London: Wordsworth Editions.

Splendore, Paola (1985) ‘B. S. Johnson’s Intransitive Performance’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 93-98.

Tew, Philip (2001) B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press.

Thielemans, Johan (1985) ‘Albert Angelo or B. S. Johnson’s Paradigm of Truth’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 81-87.

Tindall, Kenneth (1985) ‘Bryan Johnson – – A Big Motherfucker of a Pisces’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 101-108.

Tredell, Nicolas (1985) ‘Telling Life, Telling Death: The Unfortunates’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 34-42.

Tredell, Nicolas (1985) ‘The Truths of Lying: Albert Angelo’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5 (2), pp. 64-70.

Woolf, Virginia (2004) Mrs Dalloway. London: Vintage.



The Smithsons on Housing (1970) Directed by B. S. Johnson, London: BBC. Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2014).



[1] B. S. Johnson, Trawl in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 7.

[2] B. S. Johnson, Trawl in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 134.

[3] B. S. Johnson, Albert Angelo in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 167. And frequently repeated elsewhere.

[4] B. S. Johnson, Albert Angelo in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 163.

[5] Johnson’s second novel, published after the well-received and mostly fictional Travelling People (1963).

[6] Both before becoming able to support himself as a writer and, to his shock, afterwards. Though the disappointments and failings in Johnson’s life off the page are not relevant to this study, it is interesting to remember that his books, though acclaimed, were never particularly commercially successful.

[7] B. S. Johnson, Albert Angelo in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 23. Following references are to this edition and will be given, where appropriate, in the text.

[8] B. S. Johnson, ‘Holes, Syllabics and the Succussations of the Intercostal and Abdominal Muscles’ in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 396.

[9] In 1970 he wrote and directed a documentary for the BBC, The Smithsons On Housing, about the Brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Brutalism as a movement owed a lot to Functionalism.

[10] This phrase, popularised by Jonathan Coe after he selected it as the title for his award-winning Johnson biography, Like A Fiery Elephant (2004), comes from a child’s descriptions of Albert.

[11] It is certainly not a verisimilitude he craves here – the creation of a sense of truth based on imaginary events is the exact kind of literary sin he is lambasting.

[12] B. S. Johnson, ‘Holes, Syllabics and the Succussations of the Intercostal and Abdominal Muscles’ in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 392.

[13] B. S. Johnson, Trawl in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 105. Following references are to this edition and will be given, where appropriate, in the text.

[14] Jonathan Coe, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson (London: Picador, 2005). Coe discusses the organisation of the trip in Autumn 1963 on pp. 147-148 and the completion of Trawl in Winter 1965 on pp. 202-203.

[15] B. S. Johnson, Trawl in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 34.

[16] See footnote 14.

[17] Here the sense of truth very much is verisimilitude, unlike in Albert Angelo. (See footnote 11.)

[18] Though the lack of eroticism should be mentioned – the reminiscence is clinical and disconnected rather than masturbatory.

[19] B. S. Johnson, ‘Introduction’ to Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 14.

[20] Ibid., p. 12.

[21] James Joyce, Ulysses, Jeri Johnson (ed.), (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), pp. 690-732.

[22] B. S. Johnson, Trawl in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 66.

[23] B. S. Johnson, Albert Angelo in B. S. Johnson Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004), p. 173.

[24] The operator of which is named Molloy, a Beckett reference.

[25] Zulfikar Ghose, ‘Bryan’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5:2 (1985), p. 25.

[26] B. S. Johnson, ‘Introduction’ to Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 14.

[27] Ibid., p. 25.

[28] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘FIRST’, p. 4. For a brief explanation of my referencing for The Unfortunates, please see the Appendix.

[29] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘The estate.      That enormous flat’, p. 5.

[30] Paola Splendore, ‘B. S. Johnson’s Intransitive Performance’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5:2 (1985), p. 94.

[31] Rather than teach to earn money, Johnson undertook a lot of journalistic work, often sports related, during the mid to late sixties.

[32] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘The pitch worn, the worn patches’, p. 7.

[33] Particularly the Beats.

[34] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘Then they had moved to a house’, p. 4.

[35] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘Then they had moved to a house’, p. 4.

[36] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘Then they had moved to a house’, p. 5.

[37] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘Then he was doing research’, p. 3.

[38] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘So he came to his parents at Brighton’, p. 5.

[39] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘So he came to his parents at Brighton’, pp. 3-4.

[40] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘So he came to his parents at Brighton’, p. 2.

[41] B. S. Johnson, ‘Holes, Syllabics and the Succussations of the Intercostal and Abdominal Muscles’ in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 391.

[42] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘At least once he visited us at the Angel’, p. 1.

[43] B. S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), ‘At least once he visited us at the Angel’, p. 1.

[44] B. S. Johnson, ‘Holes, Syllabics and the Succussations of the Intercostal and Abdominal Muscles’ in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 393.

[45] See Bibliography.

[46] B. S. Johnson, ‘Introduction’ to Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, Jonathan Coe, Julia Jordan and Philip Tew (eds), (London: Picador, 2013), p. 27.

[47] Philip Tew, B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 116-117.

[48] Judith Mackrell, ‘B. S. Johnson and the British Experimental Tradition: An Introduction’, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5:2 (1985), p. 45.

10 comments on “The Effectiveness of B. S. Johnson’s Formal Experimentation in the Creation of a Readable Truth

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  5. Hi there. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on B.S. Johnson here. His bold formal innovation is what first interested me in his work. A few years later and I’m writing my MA thesis on him! Looking through your bibliography you have a lot of references to essays that are within Volume V issue 2 of The Contemporary Review of Fiction. I’d love to be able to read these but I can’t manage to get hold of it anywhere… how did you manage to find it?

    Once again, nice words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kieran! Thanks so much! I wrote this essay as part of my MA, too, many years ago! I read that issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction in the British Library – I think they have a couple of copies, so it’s pretty easy to get one once you’re there. It’s also where I read Johnson’s first and last novels, the out of print ones that are crazy crazy expensive to buy secondhand.

      These are also a great resource:


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