Time can erode the gilded monuments of literary reputation with remarkable alacrity. When Malcolm Bradbury edited The Novel Today in 1977, B S Johnson's contribution rubbed shoulders with Philip Roth, John Fowles and Doris Lessing. Two decades on, his work is out of print, and his name means little to all but a few somewhat jealous admirers. But now, 30 years after the first publication of The Unfortunates, Picador has bravely reissued the novel in all its splendid oddity.
Johnson was a boldly experimental writer, and this is his most formally outrageous work. The novel comes in a box and comprises 27 sections, bound only by a removable wrapper. The first and last sections are marked as such, but the remaining 25 are intended to be encountered in an order of the reader's own choosing. You shuffle, and then you shuffle some more, defying the gimmick to work, because a gimmick is exactly what it seems.
The Unfortunates, for all its formal novelty, is rather simple. A second-rate football reporter, closely modelled on Johnson himself (he wrote for the Observer), is sent to Nottingham to cover a routine league game. He scarcely considers his destination until he is there but then, when he arrives, fragments of his past return to him, bit by bit, and he recalls that the city is well known to him and that it was here that a lecturer friend of his lived - a friend who encouraged his writing when no one else was interested in his work but who has since died from cancer. As he runs through the formalities of reporting the match, he is borne back into a world of forgotten detail, reliving the highs and lows of a life half-forgotten; but the memories surface in a haphazard fashion, jumbled, knotted and without form.
In the piece Bradbury chose for The Novel Today Johnson explained the value of his experiment, claiming that the contrivance "reflected the randomness of the material" and "was itself a physical tangible metaphor for randomness and the nature of cancer". So the reader comes at the narrative by routes unexpected, and one's awareness of the rottenness and stagnation that pollute it is both encouraged and retarded by the sinuous disorder of the story. Johnson's conceit is that this is how the mind works: recollection isn't linear, it's arbitrary, and a narrative dotted with disjunctions is a true narrative of the backwardness of memory.
This thesis and its fruit no doubt sound tediously esoteric, but the result exceeds all cynical expectation. In his sympathetic introduction to the Picador reissue, Jonathan Coe, who is working on a biography of Johnson, claims it "offers thin pickings as a social document", but the truth is otherwise: as well as being an affecting study of cancer and friendship, The Unfortunates is perceptive about academia, hack work and the listless existence of the small-time writer. It is also, by being so acute about the apparent clutter and scramble of memory, pointedly serious about the possibility of forgetting, for the true misfortune of the title's "unfortunates" is their extinction, the brittle immateriality of their achievements and their aspirations. Yet this is never overplayed. There is a quiet, unshowy precision in Johnson's prose; his grand effects are conceptual, not stylistic.
The misfortune of the novel is that its concept makes it unusually difficult and expensive to produce, and this has long served as an excuse to keep it out of print. Regrettably there is a long-standing English (and it is arguably English, not British) suspicion of formal innovation in fiction. We apparently prefer straightforwardness, and anything that smacks of ingenuity is denigrated as "experimental".
Johnson committed suicide at the age of 40, in 1973, and his work was quickly forgotten, which it should not have been. If the story of The Unfortunates was thin, its device would merely seem brash. As it is, he produced a near masterpiece, and Picador should be applauded for this timely reissue.