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Tome On The Range

B.S. Johnson & The Amniotic Fluid Of Words
Daniel Fraser , June 2nd, 2013 14:51

In a second piece to mark the 80th anniversary of the celebrated author's birth - and fortieth of his death - Daniel Fraser considers the relationship between writer and reader and the tyranny of reason in Johnson's work

‘What kills childhood is knowledge; what kills love is knowledge. Yet...there is no true love except in the aptitude of a subject, or two subjects, to return to childhood.’
      - François Perrier

B.S. Johnson’s experimental literature, on the surface, might present itself as a re-submergence in the amniotic fluid of words: a re-infantilisation process resulting in a womblike narrative landscape which is, however, far from safe. The knowledge uncovered there is unsettling and dark - the space is presided over by an insidious matriarchal figure and writing is the only remedy.

House Mother Normal consists of a series of eight twenty-one page monologues by eight elderly people living in a care home, brutalised and humiliated by the figure of the House Mother, their supposed carer. The monologues occur simultaneously, bookended only by the introduction of the House Mother and her own concurrent monologue which closes the book (and also breaks the twenty-one page form). Trawl on the other hand sees Johnson take a three week trip on a fishing trawler in order to try to write. He suffers so badly from seasickness, however, that he remains confined to his bunk - ‘trawling through’ his old memories, interrupted only by his desire for fresh air or food. There follows the inevitable vomiting and a return to the bunk to continue his own internal trawling. (Trawl is not one of those surreptitious, coded titles.)

One can instantly identify spaces of confinement and imprisonment, the continually nauseous and bedridden Johnson coupled with the dribbling and failed speech of the care home's elderly inhabitants complete the picture of transformation and regression. The matriarch in each case: insidious, powerful, deaf to all pleas, and numb to suffering taking the form of the House Mother and the sea respectively. Memories of sexual encounters and sickness pervade both books in equal measure; so much so that one might be tempted to adopt the base rhetoric of psychoanalysis, declaring that the neuroses of the author are simply being projected onto his narrative landscape and move on. But this would be something of an injustice, and certainly not the whole story.

By identifying the works as constructed narratives within the texts themselves - through both texts’ utilisation of stylistic repetition, unusual typography and explicit references to writing - Johnson deterritorialises the writing. The landscape is not in utero but other. Not a submergence but a line of flight. Writing is in fact both remedy and poison, its undecidability uncouples it from any binary distinction, dislocated from any spatio-temporal location. After all:

‘To know that one is because, is no more use than knowing what one is: and to believe the condition is made any more bearable for knowing why is to be deluded... What use is knowing a reason?’

In House Mother Normal the same events are continually recycled, the words of the inmates withering away each time: the song they are called to recite, the game of pass the parcel and the mop jousting recurring with disgusting and moving inevitability. All of which eventually end with the dystopian ‘no doesn’t matter’ at once recalling the ‘So it goes’ of Vonnegut, the latter a shrug against the infinite present, the former a summation of all past and futures. The crumbling utterances settle on the page and serve to highlight the interplay of presence and absence in writing, even as speech evaporates. And in Trawl this deterritorialisation is far more obvious: memory’s fragility is constantly on display, the figure of Johnson aboard the trawler fails to remember the name of an old girlfriend despite repeated efforts; the coastlines they encounter are of unidentifiable countries and there is a constant desire for ‘Time’ which has broken and become ‘woolly and indeterminate.’ There are many repetitions of words and lines of dots and Johnson even writes at one point: ‘this is not the first time I have noticed the repetition of my remarks.'

This line of flight extends beyond any neurosis or symbolism: the disgust, suffering and sexuality of the narrative space of the two books are alleviated by their unapologetic fictionality. It is instead another disquiet which Johnson explores - the power and isolation (and therefore also futility) of writing. Not merely the frustration of writing, or of attempting to write which has become so commonplace - even passé - in contemporary literature, but also the untraversable void of distance between the author and the reader. The Derridean interplay of presence and absence, those traces of what Johnson is not writing exemplify this beautifully.

They are, in a sense, deaf to one another.

Johnson’s perforated eardrum and the deafness of the House Mother to suffering are the deafness of words which allows them to persist when speech is unheard or falling apart, turning to gibberish in the mouth of the speaker. This deafness serves to highlight the isolation of the writer, character and reader. They cannot speak to one another, only writing is between them. However, as we are not listening and interpreting, not engaging in speech, with its unshakable ties to reason, not trying to gain knowledge, we instead can see the shimmer of writing’s infinite tensile web.

Johnson eschews the tyrannical control of reason or symbolism over words which the House Mother and the Sea have over the characters in the stories which they dominate. The writer and reader exist as an assemblage: there is an a-parallel evolution between the two, developed because of the transferral of the text, that interwoven web of what is both there and not there, even though they both may be entirely disconnected in time/space. As Johnson writes succinctly: the benefit must have come from the rehearsal of the experiences themselves.’

Johnson’s work exquisitely displays the translation of life into writing and the effective equivalence of the two (or the writing-becoming of life in Deleuze’s terms). His honest experimentation and style allow him to show the complex textile structure of writing itself, dissipating any conception of binary notions such as love/knowledge, childhood/knowledge etc. Instead allowing the infinite connections of writing to exist in an eternal midpoint, fleeing between reader, writer and on, on into that space where life and writing meet, fuse and disperse.

B.S. Johnson's back catalogue and the recently published Well Done God!: Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson are published by Picador