18 February 2013

B. S. Johnson: Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973)

B. S. Johnson was unusual in that he was one of the few English writers to be resolutely experimental, and as such he deserves some recognition.
Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is a short novel whose plot can be summed up quite succinctly: a young man begins work at the bottom of the clerical field, develops resentments about his employers and plots to get even with them and society in general by taking ever more extreme retaliatory measures until he becomes a mass murderer, and then dies of cancer.

That more or less covers it, although it's perhaps a good idea to elaborate. Christie Malry (who the narrator several times says is a simple person) begins working at a bank at the age of seventeen and soon after moves to a sweet and cake business as an invoice clerk. He forms a serious relationship with a young woman who works for a butcher, and makes friends with Headlam, another young guy who works for the same firm as Christie.

Christie never tells anyone about his obsession: using double entry book keeping as a theory, he puts any harm his employers (or any of their customers, or any figures of authority) inflict on him on the debit side, and any action to correct any perceived wrongs on the credit side. So if, say, someone superior to him at the office annoys him, he might get his own back by stealing some paper clips or a little paper, and so on.

But larger offences call for larger retaliatory measures, and soon Christie is sending a bomb to the tax office and killing several people, then killing many thousands of people by poisoning the water. His plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament is only crushed by his dying of cancer.

We might assume from this that the reader is expected to keep a willing suspension of disbelief, but (as, for instance, the inclusion of an epigraph by Brecht strongly suggests) any realistic illusion is futile. In the second chapter, we are told that the narrator is attempting a transcursion into Christie's mind, or rather an illusion of transcursion, as the reader already knows whose mind this has all come from; in the next chapter Christie's mother dies and tells him he'll no doubt pass on a story she's told him to the readers (and some time later the narrator announces that he's going to relate the story he omitted); the narrator tells the reader that Christie and his girlfriend are perfectly happy as, 'Well, this is fiction, is it not? Isn't it?'; and toward the end Christie has a conversation with the narrator, in which the protagonist states that the long novel is anachronistic, that it related to a set of social conditions that no longer exist. Quite.

There are many things I loved about this novel, including its love of words, the often playfully obscure polysyllables such as 'exeleuthostise', 'trituration', 'chryptorchid', even Christies's girlfriend's name 'Shrike', meaning butcherbird – but this was published forty years ago, and surely I'm right to feel pessimistic: B. S. Johnson was continuing a logical progression by moving the novel on, testing the boundaries, questioning the literary laziness of the time, but what does that say about a reading public that is still so enthusiastic about essentially 19th century novels written by, say, Ian MacEwan and Hilary Mantel? In forty years, haven't we moved back?

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