The Year of Reading Dangerously: B. S. Johnson
What better place to start than with England’s most famous experimental (though he disliked the word) novelist, B. S. Johnson. Johnson wrote six novels between 1963 and 1973 when he committed suicide at the age of forty. (His final book was published posthumously in 1975). House Mother Normal appeared in 1971 and is set in a home for the elderly, consisting of nine interior monologues recapping the same events. Eight of the narratives are residents and, from each to the next, exhibit a degenerating sense of what is happening around them and ability to express it. The final voice is that of the House Mother herself. But don’t take my word for it: Johnson expressed his own intentions with clarity:
“What I wanted to do was take an evening in an old people’s home, and see a single set of events through the eyes of not less than eight old people. Due to the various deformities and deficiencies of the inmates, these events would seem to be progressively “abnormal” to the reader. At the end there would be the viewpoint of the House Mother, an apparently “normal” person, and the events themselves would then seem to be so bizarre that everything that had come before would seem “normal” by comparison.”
Each voice is preceded by some basic character information: age, efficiency of senses, CQ (classic question) count – that is, a measure of their mental acuity – medical conditions. As the CQ count drops, so do the narratives become increasingly disjointed, full of gaps and non-sequiturs. Not only is each character allotted 21 pages but each line of each page represents the same moment in time, hence the blank page where Sioned Bowen dozes off, or the almost empty pages of George Hedbury and Rosetta Stanton. By placing the characters in this order, it allows the reader to make more sense of the later voices as we piece together a picture of events. So, for example, when George spends almost a page on:
“crepe paper, creper crepep creper
we are aware he is making crackers out of crepe paper. Similarly, we can reconstruct conversations as in each section we only get the spoken words of that character.
House Mother Normal can be both funny and touching. There is a rather slapstick sense of satire with dog shit as the prize in a game of Pass the Parcel, jousting using the wheelchair bound residents and mops, and a Home anthem which is sung with varying degrees of accuracy, and adapted to represent a quite different viewpoint by the House Mother. Johnson also includes an unsubtle dig at his critics as Ivy Nicholls offers an opinion on Albert Angelo:
“What a load of all rubbish! No story about it. Boring.”
We can also be amused by the petty rivalries (“I can do more cracker cases in ten minutes than some of these can do in a whole evening”), the complaining (“ooooooooooooh! my arse again, keep still”) and the mundane memories, but not without some pathos created by the smallness of the world the residents now now inhabit. Each chapter ends with the phrase, “No, doesn’t matter,” which might be seen as a summary of society’s attitude towards the home’s inhabitants even now. The exception is that of Rosetta Stanton, a narrative largely made up of ‘noise’: noddwr, Teg, enwog, geirwer, arabus are the contents of one page. This may seem an extravagant waste of pages to make a simple point, but the moment of enlightenment which comes at the end is all the more moving for what has gone before:
“Now I can every
word you say I am a prisoner in my
self. It is terrible. The movement agonises me.
Let me out, or I shall die.”
As Johnson intended, the final narrative proves the House Mother, as the representative of the ‘normal’ world to be by far the least normal. Indeed, the final scene, which has largely been only vaguely indicated by expressions such as, “What a disgusting spectacle!” and, “Oh filth, utter filth!” may shock some readers even today. However, it’s Johnson’s portrayal of old age that remains the most affecting.
Danger rating: About as dangerous as taking a sip of tea without checking the temperature first. House Mother Normal is not difficult to read, despite some work needed to match up the different narratives. It is available in an omnibus edition of Johnson’s work along with Trawl and Albert Angelo published by Picador. However, astonishingly, some of Johnson’s other novels remain out of print.