176 pages, Picador
Review by Marc Nash
A book that comes in a book-shaped box! Twenty-seven sections, one labeled ‘first’, one ‘last’ and the reader is free to choose the order in which they read the interceding 25 sections. This isn’t a device for the sake of being tricksy, but the author wants to replicate the random and unreliable nature that our memories work.
A writer and journalist is sent to cover a soccer match in a Midlands town. As he steps off the train two hours ahead of kick-off, a host of memories rush into his head, as this is a town chockfull of resonance for him. He met one of his best friends who was at University here when he had travelled up for a collaboration on student newspapers. His friend died of cancer at just 29 and the book is a series of chopped up recollections of the triangular friendship together with the man’s wife, the narrator’s own love life, the disease and the nature of writing itself.
As he makes his meandering progress to the football stadium, via café, butchers and pub, he recalls time spent with his friends in various towns. Sometimes the architecture eludes him as he can’t pinpoint which pub or café, or sometimes the architecture itself has changed with progress. Equally he struggles to pinpoint whether the man’s wife, or whichever of his own female consorts was present in some recollected event or not. As much as memory floods in on an emotional level, in its caprice some of the details are denied him and they of course can inflect his emotional response to the memory. It’s interesting that one section is him finally sat in the press box, desultorily composing his report as the match proceeds, limited by both the clichéd language of sports reporting which he’d like to burst out from, plus the word limit of his column inches which pretty much predetermines what he can write even before the match kicks off and play takes what direction it will. On the inside of the box his final match report is printed, and reads very bland and lacking all the linguistic flourishes demonstrated throughout the rest of the book.
There were a couple of places where I didn’t feel the narrative conceit was consistent. It was fortunate that the penultimate section I read happened to be him in the press box of the ground. What would have happened if I’d happened to read that after the ‘first chapter’, the timing would have been way off. This did happen when an early section I read had him on the final part of his walk up to the ground, when later I read sections where he stopped off to buy some meat at a butchers. Just seemed to me that the author could have got around these timing problems easily enough but just hadn’t noticed or tried.
And what of the overall effect of the narrative conceit? My path through is in all likelihood going to be different from any other reader, since their section choices will be different from mine. I think it worked well for both the horrendous rise and fall of hope as the path of the friend’s cancer is traced and also that of memory’s fragmentedness too. As Johnson has his protagonist comment, “yes how the mind arranges itself, tries to sort for things into orders, is perturbed if things are not sorted, are not in the right order, nags away...” This is by far the most interesting parts of the narrative as he struggles over whether it was his first visit to their house, or whether he drove, as his friend had not yet passed his driving test, whether that was the occasion when he’d bought a certain book on architecture and so on. And then in the light of his friend’s premature death, does any of it matter anyway? “My mind passes dully over the familiar ground of my prejudices, so much of thought is repetition, is dullness, is sameness”.
The Unfortunates was definitely an interesting read, if not a gripping one, since the subject matter is both mundane (in the sense of what is being recalled) and grim in respect of the disease. If you’re interested in literary experimentation, or trying to get to grips with a more realistic mimesis of how the human mind works, I’d say read this novel. If however you are after an entertaining read for entertainment’s sakes, then possibly not. It certainly sparked my creative imagination and helped me resolve a project of my own that had become stalled. The idea of a reader navigating their own path through a narrative (and not a quest or treasure-finding one) is deliciously enticing.