Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The Johnson file

Excellent news (reported in the Guardian): Jonathan Coe's biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, has won the Samuel Johnson Award for nonfiction. The ironies are, of course, thick on the ground, since B.S. Johnson's own playful, bristling, increasingly anguished oeuvre won him little acclaim during his short life. (The author committed suicide in 1973, at the age of 40.) And it was Johnson's fealty to fact over fiction--his belief that art was essentially a refined sort of fibbing--that tended to torpedo his own novels. Albert Angelo, one of his best books, collapses during its final pages into an orgy of self-flagellation. And if memory serves me correctly, the author also breaks in at the end of House Mother Normal to admit he was making the whole thing up. Still, they're both tremendous reads, as is the devilish, high-concept Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry. (As usual, The Complete Review features a fine round-up of Johnsonian reviews, quotes, and links.)

With Coe's biography in the spotlight, I have a bonus for HOM visitors: the outtakes from Kerry Fried's Newsday profile of the author, with tons of material that couldn't be shoehorned into a relatively short article. Enjoy!
Fried: You dedicated Like a Fiery Elephant to Joyce Yates, whom B. S. Johnson had had a relationship with in the 1950s, and to Julia Trevelyan Oman, a photographer he had worked with. And you clearly became fond of many of the others you interviewed.

Coe: I don't know if that's just because they were being nice to me and seemed generous with their time, which many of them were. But also I did feel--and I don't want to sentimentalize about this--that Johnson himself had been a huge centrifugal force that brought a lot of very disparate people into a kind of community, and when he killed himself that community was shattered and dispersed. One of the roles I found myself playing was that of someone who was bringing those people back together.

Fried: After the biography proper, you intertwine 30 pages of comments from interviews with Johnson's wife, friends, colleagues in "A Life in 44 Voices."

Coe: I began the book with a more conventional, more linear approach but realized that I was approaching the story like the omniscient narrator in a Victorian novel and that wasn't actually what I was: I didn't have omniscience about B.S. Johnson. What's more, it wasn't necessary to do that because many different points of view, including most importantly Johnson's point of view and the point of view of the people who knew him, were available to me and could be presented to the reader more or less unmediated.

Fried: Unlike many biographers of late, you don't explicitly explore the aftermath.

Coe: I think the book had already become so much bigger than I'd imagined or intended and had become so emotionally fraught in many ways--not just in terms of my relationship with the family and how carefully I had to tread round their feelings, but also in terms of the way that B.S. Johnson's state of mind as he kind of came toward to the end was starting to colonize my own state of mind, with a lot of unexpected issues arising out of the writing of the book. All of that made me feel that the death was an absolute cut-off point really, and that there was no point in prolonging the agony by going in any detail into the aftermath or the shock waves that that had sent around his family and friends. I felt I could take all that as given, basically.

Fried: The biography is also enacts your distrust of the silences and compromises of conventional literary biography. One footnote, for instance, reads, "I can't explain this reference." Has that changed at all?

Coe: I've come out of the book with a kind of increased respect for people who have the tact and the confidence to adopt a more omniscient tone of voice and to tread more confidently and assertively rather than the elaborate tiptoeing dance that I perform through a lot of the book.

Fried: Tapdancing, surely. The tension between Johnson's high spirits and his grim vision of society is in your novels, too.

Coe: I don't think that he was more pessimistic about society or human nature than I am necessarily, but that pessimism was much closer to the surface. He could never forget it, or rarely forget it, whereas I'm more like most other people I think, in that I'm able to shut myself off from an awareness most of the time and just get on with life, which is what we all have to do. But we're not dissimilar people in many ways--that's what I discovered when I was writing the book, and I realize now that that's what drew me to him. I thought that what drew me to him was a shared philosophy of experimental writing. But my views on writing and my practice of writing have changed quite a lot in the twenty years or so I've been doing it, and I realize now that what I felt with B.S. Johnson when I first discovered him twenty years ago was a temperamental affinity rather than a theoretical one.

Fried: Is it fair to say that you're preoccupied with the missing? In The House of Sleep Robert disappears and in The Rotters' Club Miriam vanishes.

Coe: I'm just trying to think if there are any missing people in what I'm writing at the moment. Yeah, there are. As you can tell from these books, I am very interested in my relationship to the past and very interested in my relationship to all the people I've known, whether I'm still in touch with them or not. And when people go missing from my life, I do find that intriguing and also frustrating. To go back to the biography, the missing figure is Michael Bannard, who disappeared and weaved in and out of Johnson's story.

Fried: You busted your deadline for Like a Fiery Elephant by some years. Were
you working on it and The Closed Circle concurrently?

Coe: I wrote bits of The Rotters' Club and the biography simultaneously. But
I delivered the first draft of the biography and it kind of shocked Johnson's family, I think. It wasn't the book they were expecting it to be. And there was a necessary period really of about six or nine months where we all just had to stand back and decide what we thought about it. And then what was published was a second draft which in the end wasn't radically different from what I had delivered to start with. That period was a kind of dead period, really. I couldn't really write or concentrate on anything else while I was doing it, so the bulk of The Closed Circle was written more quickly than most of my other novels, in a six-month period between the end of 2003, beginning of 2004.

Fried: Can you say anything more about what you're working on now?

Coe: I have just started something new, which I'm hoping is going to turn into a novel. It's kind of unusual for me, because normally I know whether it's going to turn into a novel or not, and indeed that's how I conceive of it. But I'm being a little more intuitive with this new one and trying to see where the writing leads me. It's good to be writing again, anyway.

yeah have this on my desk by noon pronto
good sir, i shall have this on your desk a-sap. 10-4 big guy
i want you working on this next you did a solid job on the johnson file
love your boss
sir , that brought tears to my eyes. such an honor to work for you in this fine corporation. :)
your one of my finest workers and everytime you walk in i stare at your ass. but that lucidi kid we just hired has to go he did awful on the scooby doo files
i agree sir, he doesn't even have a nice ass. i think he needs to go.
sir, i have to take a massive dump, do i have permission to use the facilities?
he defiantly needs to go but before we get rid of him i think we should give him a good ramming. (winky face)
you do have my permission but before you take that dump check if that lucidi kid is at his desk. if hes not take your dump on his desk. hell if hes at his desk just go ahead and take a dump on him
i would enjoy ramming him so much, sir (winkey face)
he has such a disappointing ass. would you mind if i dumped on his computer equipment?:)
thank you for being very professional about all of this (winkey face)#icant#wait#to#ram#lucidi#in#the#ass
hut hut hut
sir, i have just finished the ramming. he said he really enjoyed it and he is madly in love with me now. what should i do?
alright i didnt want to resort to this but were going to have to make love to his buttcheeks. i know it might make him fall in love with us even more but were going to have to try it its our only chance.... #ilovemensbutts
i agree sir. this may be our only only way out now. lucidi, where ever you are, your butt cheeks better be ready. #istillhavetopoop#buttcheeks
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