Language To Be Looked At

Isla Leaver-Yap on the books of BS Johnson

To describe BS Johnson as a writer of books sounds like a mistake—a casual, and perhaps lazy piece of misinformation. True, Bryan Stanley Johnson wrote almost exclusively about his own life, but the word ‘writing’ seems to limit the horizon of Johnson’s project. Maybe, then, it is better to say BS Johnson worked with books. The book form, after all, comprises and connects all that Johnson attempted to grapple with: words, pages, printing, subject matter. Thus the substance of Johnson’s project exists somewhere between the printed page and the reader’s eye, between linguistic and visual translation, or, to sum up neatly using a phrase borrowed from Robert Smithson’s 1967 show, Johnson’s novels comprise language to be looked at and/or things to be read. The page, Johnson declared, ‘is an area on which I may place any signs I consider to communicate most nearly what I have to convey: therefore I employ, within the pocket of my publisher and the patience of my printer, typographical techniques beyond the arbitrary and constricting limits of the conventional novel.’ Language and image are not differentiated here; they are levelled to share a common context. Johnson’s project, then, was to communicate content ‘most nearly’, in the most suitable form possible. And if such a form was not already existent, then the content demanded that Johnson should make one suis generis.

Smithson’s 1967 exhibition Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read (the press release written by the artist under the pseudonym Eton Corrasable) remarks on the apparent decline of the book form: ‘Books entomb words in a synthetic rigor mortis, perhaps that is why “print” is thought to have entered obsolescence. The mind of this death, however, is unrelentingly awake.’ While Smithson was melodramatically casting the book as a crypt encasing a literary zombie (his tone indicative of how much was at stake with the use or misuse of language), Johnson was at work on his third novel, his most notorious: The Unfortunates. Presented in a box containing 27 loose sections or ‘signatures’ that could be shuffled and read in whichever order the reader so chooses, The Unfortunates can be seen as Johnson’s revenge against the ‘rigor mortis’ of the bound page. Inspired by the loss of his close friend Tony Tillinghast to cancer, the story is an interior monologue of a reporter sent to cover a football match but finds himself reflecting on the death of an old friend. The text serves as a ‘transcript’ that mirrors the aleatory movements of the mind over a period of 24 hours, and the book is presented both as a technological object and a physical metaphor for randomness where, as Johnson notes, ‘the past and present [run] together in a quite arbitrary manner’. The ‘shuffle’ format of The Unfortunates, 1969, was not entirely a new phenomenon of course.


William S Burroughs’ experimental cut-up recordings of the 1950s are certainly informative here, although perhaps more prominent is Composition No 1 by Marc Saporta published in 1961, a book made up entirely of loose-leaf pages to be shuffled according to Saporta’s instruction: ‘The reader is requested to shuffle these pages like a deck of cards; to cut, if he likes, with his left hand, as at a fortune- teller’s. The order the pages then assume will orient X’s fate.’ Also compelling and relative to The Unfortunates is The Pronouns: A collection of 40 dances for the dancers, published by Jackson Mac Low in 1964 and explicitly taking the form of a deck of cards. Mac Low, a poet, composer and painter closely involved with the downtown Manhattan music and performance scene, created work that relied on open form, chance and participation. Using what he called the ‘nucleic method’, Mac Low began writing The Pronouns as a series of dance instruction poems that he described as an ‘action pack’: a deck of playing cards, each displaying a typewritten word. Through a process of systematic chance, the cards are to be selected by the dancer/reader and, in Mac Low’s words, ‘find some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line of the dance-poems they choose to realise.'


But to talk only of the form by comparison is to ignore the content of Johnson’s The Unfortunates—one of the book’s strongest features. The story, for want of a better word, possesses a shocking emotional charge, which makes the format appear less of a playful or experimental act, and more of a necessary function that atomises an interior monologue that spirals the narrator’s irreconcilable grief. Johnson uses one form (a journalist reporting a football match) to discuss that of another (death and dying), and the chaotic nature of events and their unfolding is twinned with the physical randomness of the book itself. The novel renders a darting, polyattentive consciousness hinged on the three principles that Johnson held dear: ‘the precise use of language, exploitation of the techno logical fact of the book, the explication of thought.’ While it’s highly unlikely that Johnson was ever aware of the conceptual strategies of artists such as Smithson, Mac Low, or a host of artists who were interrogating the materiality of language at the same time as his novels, there is something nonetheless illuminating about discussing them in tandem with Johnson’s. It’s worth noting, for instance, that simultaneous to the writing of The Unfortunates, Andy Warhol was finalising a: A Novel, a publication that distilled two-years’ worth of conversations with Factory icon Ondine, into a 24-hour period. The form of A Novel is rambling, often incoherent, salacious and frank, and has little textually in common with Johnson’s crisp prose. But as a roman à clef, the ambitions of Warhol’s novel are surprisingly close to Johnson’s own output: a thinly veiled reflection of life experiences barely fictionalised, an ontological authenticity. ‘Telling stories,’ as Johnson was at pains to point out throughout his career, ‘is telling lies.’ And, as critic Thomas Crow suggests, Warhol had his own brand of traditional American truth-telling, where A Novel is the quiddity of the artist’s project. Within his contemporary British literary context, however, Johnson’s use of formal devices (only where, he would argue, the content demanded its deployment) was frequently dismissed as gimmicky. Writer Gordon Williams, for instance, called out Johnson’s use of Tristram Shandy-inspired black pages in the latter’s 1963 novel Travelling People. Williams suggested that Johnson’s black pages were the ultimate act of ‘anti-language’—not the stuff of a writer.


Yet Johnson’s reason for side-stepping words has less to do with a writer making a defiant stand against the insufficiency of language, and more to do with opting for the most suitable form to convey articulately the situation within the limitations of the book. Using grey blocks to signal moments of unconsciousness or a black page to signify the death of a character, Johnson argued that such characters, ‘obviously cannot indicate this in words representing thought.' In his subsequent novel Albert Angelo, 1964, meanwhile, Johnson requested that holes be cut on page 149 and the following pages, so that the reader might see through the book and thus ‘read the future’ on page 153, peeping through a window that reveals a moment foretelling the death of one of the book’s central characters. Albert Angelo’s incisions provide the basis for an unlikely dramatic irony, a non-linguistic gambit that bypasses the prolixity of narrative in favour of a physical short-circuit. His device cuts its way through the need for words, context and framing. The book was no longer a sequential pattern of word systems, but instead a container within which Johnson might punch through its paper walls. Combining alternative forms of printed matter that exploit a graphic or visual intervention, was Johnson’s effort to bolster the expressiveness of the book, rather than illustrate the insufficiency or his contempt for language. It becomes a matter of truthfulness, where form might be put to the service of, and used as a surrogate for, content. His devices are swift and effective in addressing his obsessions—dying, death and grieving—and afforded him a visual precision unavailable in the wordiness of language. His unswerving commitment to accuracy and truth, however, produces a perverse set of limitations within his work, in that he felt he could only write (again, the word ‘write’ seems unhelpful here) ‘truthfully’ when drawing on his own experiences. A reliance on the narrowing field of lived experience in many instances leaves his literature with a recursive and perhaps even self-indulgent attitude, a blinkered view that contemporaries of Johnson even venture as a creative cul-de-sac. Graphic designer and publisher Stuart Bailey confronts this problem in an issue of Dot Dot Dot, articulating the situation thus: ‘on the one hand [Johnson] sets out to expose the lies of his form, on the other he insists on the truth of his content, and somewhere in this blind spot of paradox lies the essence of his character; true stories.’


Yet for every rule there is an exception, particularly, it seems, in the case of Johnson, and one of his later books does exemplify a rare instance where the writer stepped into the imagined consciousness of other people, rather than rely on his own lived experience. House Mother Normal, 1971, revisits The Unfortunates’ themes of frailty and dying, but refracts his concerns through the interior monologues of ten elderly residents of an old people’s home. Each section circles a single event, and together build a polyglot narrative that swells into an irrepressible chorus. House Mother Normal, with its fragmented form and disintegrating language is, among many things, a lament against the society’s aversion to old age, and Johnson elevates the otherwise marginalised voice of the elderly. Over the past decade Johnson’s work has been on a slow-burn rise, thanks to Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography A Fiery Elephant, 2004, but also due to the sustained interest of artists and graphic designers such as Bailey, Will Holder and, more recently, Beatrice Gibson.

House Mother Normal served as the formal starting point for Gibson’s ‘The Future’s Getting Old Like the Rest of Us’, 2010, a film made in collaboration with writer George Clark. Over a period of six months, Gibson and Clark conducted interviews with care home patients living in Camden, specifically meeting with elderly patients exhibiting early signs of dementia. Transcribing the interviews and producing a carefully designed score (Gibson clearly defines the form as such, rather than a script), the film exists as an elegy for memory inflected with the urgency of the present. Gibson notes that when she and Clark put the score on the wall, ‘it was the first time we were able to see/hear/imagine what the film would sound like. The density of the score’s columns indicates how many voices are speaking, so it was the first time that we edited according to sound and not according to sense or semantics. We wanted a kind of musical logic.’ Given Johnson’s care for the visual aspects of the book form, Gibson’s cinematic rendering inflected with a musical approach is a seemingly logical extension of his legacy—one that casts language not as a primary constituent but a contingent factor among a panoply of visual and aural devices.


Framed solely within the rather limiting category of literature, Johnson cuts a lonely figure, continually working out of step with the realism of the moment. And, as he was perpetually keen to point out, he and his work went relatively unrecognised and undervalued. Johnson’s ambition for the renovation of the book form and his defiant stand against the rigidity of the realist narrative was, however, firmly in step with the minimalist drive of the 1950s and early 1960s, a period during which Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were described by John Cage as a precursor to his own silent score '4’33”', the young Paul Taylor performed his new dance work in which he remained motionless (while Louis Horst subsequently submitted a newspaper review of Taylor’s performance by sending a blank space where words might be), and Vito Acconci’s poems were peppered with blanks and silences (‘RE’, 1967, specifically comes to mind). This was the renovation of form at large because the content of the period, replete with its ruptures and refusals, required such a revolution. Or, to put the concern to which these artists were responding more succinctly, Johnson quotes Sterne: ‘Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? For ever in the same track—for ever at the same pace?’

Johnson’s maverick status as a writer is less isolated (although no less ambitious) when contextualised within the visual arts of his time. His methods and ideas coalesce with early conceptual art practices that grappled with the materiality and form of language. The strategies employed by the aforementioned artists share a kinship with John- son’s self-consciously critical operation and the disassembly of traditional apparatus. His books need to be looked at, not simply read. And, with a rare acknowledgement of the book as a technological object, Johnson’s project inserted the architecture of the book form into a conceptual field.
Isla Leaver-Yap was MAP’s editor-at-large, 2008-2011.[1] Beatrice Gibson, The Tiger’s Mind, 6 November–31 December, Künstlerhaus, Stuttgart 

[1] Footnote amendment (21 Jan 2016): Isla Leaver-Yap is currently Director at LUX Scotland and was appointed the inaugural Bentson Visiting Film Scholar at the Walker Art Centre in 2014.

Featured as ARCHIVE SPOTLIGHT #1 as part of Suzanne van der Lingen & Claire Walsh's Footnoting the Archive project, 2016