Diversions :: Princeton on The Science Fiction of Author B.S. Johnson


(Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.)

Today we catch up with Matt Kivel, from L.A’s Princeton, who are set to release their debut full-length, Cocoon of Love, later this month on Kanine Records.   The four piece is currently touring the northeast (they had their east coast record release party last night at Union Hall in Brooklyn) making their way back west throughout September. Catch ’em live. Below, Kivel discusses the late-great fiction of author B.S. Johnson.

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I first read B.S. Johnson 4 years ago. There was a large chain bookstore located a few blocks from University College London that happened to have a wonderful ‘staff picks’ section.Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry‘ was the first book I gravitated toward and thus I was introduced to the strange, claustrophobic, self-righteous, contemptuous, hyper-critical world of Mr. Johnson.

As a writer, Johnson’s legacy mainly consists of the so-called ‘gimmicks’ he employed while experimenting with various forms in his fictions. He would use his books as canvases for exploring the expressive limits of language and the way physical production of a book could be used to further enhance the narrative. In ‘Albert Angelo’ Johnson had his publisher cut a hole in three consecutive pages of the manuscript, to allow the reader — if he so chose — a glimpse into future events in the book. A Johnson narrative staple is the intrusive narrator — a key device that allows the author to physically interact with his fictional characters, dissolving the illusion of traditional storytelling. ‘Malry’ makes innovative use of the intrusive-narrator with the story’s protagonist engaging in lengthy dialogues and arguments with the author. The myth, the ‘lie’ of storytelling is attacked viscously by this strange suspension of reality.

Johnson’s presence looms in every corner of his work because he literally may insert himself into the narrative at any time. But he does it because he believes its good for us, because he cared so deeply about bringing readers a hybrid form of truth. He understood, paradoxically, that fiction and artistic expression in general could communicate universal truths in a broad sense, but where he felt art failed was in the comfort and illusion that certain mediums could create for its willing aesthetes. As a reader, you are given a story, you are given a character and all the familiar tropes of literary expression, but Johnson wants to give you more, he wants to give you himself and all of his insecurities and self-criticisms. ‘Albert Angelo’ ends with a coda section that sees Johnson irreverently explaining all the parallels between his own life and the characters and situations he developed in the story. He doesn’t do this because he thinks readers are interested in him or his life, rather he does this to shake the reader from his comfort-zone, to understand that writing is always autobiographical, that art is derived from real human experience and that good fiction should be a direct reflection of the author’s own idiosyncratic reality.

Johnsonian heroes are magnificent. Self-loathing, insecure, critical of society yet aware of their own pathetic subordination to large, public systems. Most importantly, they all suffer from delusions of grandeur. It is this belief in the self, this solipsistic notion that despite enormous odds and the crushing mechanizations of industrial life, we are special. There is a humor, a great, riveting humor in Johnson’s overwhelming sadness. His work is tragic because he knows that none of his characters are special, that none of their plights mean a god damned thing to a world indifferent, to a world that has no rewards for hapless dreamers. But he sees himself in these dreamers, although his devotion to literature shows otherwise, Johnson is like them in many ways. Insecure, paralyzed by the thought that he may be drifting through life without substance, without reaching others in a penetrating way. He is ultimately scared, terrified of being the characters he seems to love and write about with such care and sensitivity.

As a writer, his brilliance lies in the characters and the way his fiction cuts deep into human reality and experience. There is a malaise that he explores, much like the American author Walker Percy, that defines the plight of modern society. The small pleasures taken by a people made too aware of their own inadequacies by a society that values them as nothing more than a social security number and a tax return. Johnson finds this funny, he laughs at this tragedy, but he always seems on the verge of tears, always towing the line between wit and the irony of modern life, and the dull pain we experience each day. words/ matt kivel (princeton)

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One thought on “Diversions :: Princeton on The Science Fiction of Author B.S. Johnson

  1. Excellent write-up. My sincerest thanks for bringing Johnson to an audience that may otherwise never hear of him. Kivel, Gage, all of you at AD, thank you, I feel strangely indebted. May I recommend Like A Fiery Elephant, by Jonathan Coe, for further reading.

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