My last spring training dispatch, on Cubs prospect Pierce Johnson and Giants prospects Adalberto Mejia and Mac Williamson, went up this morning for Insiders.
B.S. Johnson was an avant-garde writer who wrote poetry, plays, and novels that earned minimal recognition during his brief lifetime – he killed himself in 1973 at age 40 – but have since acquired a substantial following among academics and fans of absurdist and post-modern fiction. I hadn’t heard of Johnson at all until finding a passage that discussed his works, specifically the use of metafictional techniques in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, in James Wood’s How Fiction Works about a year ago. Christie Malry is bizarre, a portrait of the sociopath as a young figment of the author’s imagination, an heir to James Joyce and Flann O’Brien and a forerunner of Jasper Fforde.
Christie Malry is an 18-year-old narcissist and malcontent who believes that the world is out to do him harm, even in such clearly impersonal acts as putting up a building where he might want to walk if the sidewalk were a little wider. His first job at a bank, which he takes to be closer to the money, bores him, but he eventually discovers accounting and the system of double-entry bookkeeping developed in the late 1400s by the Franciscan frier Luca Pacioli, whose book on the subject is quoted several times in Johnson’s work. Malry decides to create a general ledger of his life, counting assaults against him as debits and undertaking acts of terrorism against society, starting with hoax bomb threats and escalating from there, as a way of balancing the books.
Johnson’s approach to the book has the air of calculated carelessness, such as when he says that the death toll from Malry’s biggest attack was just over twenty thousand, because “this was the first figure that came to hand as it is roughly the number of words of which the novel consists so far.” Johnson engages in dialogues with Malry, and has other characters lament their own use as pawns in the novel to further the plot without any significant development – especially Malry’s mother, who tells her back story to explain some of Malry’s behavior and then dies because she has exhausted her purpose. The arbitrary values Malry assigns to various slights are much higher than the value he places on the death of another person, which is just over a pound a head. Malry’s girlfriend is only named the Shrike, the name of a family of birds often called “butcher birds” because they impale insects on plant spikes or thorns as a form of food storage.
Johnson’s suicide shortly after the book’s publication means we won’t get a full explanation of some of the thematic questions in the book, one of which, for me, revolves around the recurring element of food. Most of the scenes revolving around Malry and other characters eating depict it as merely an act of sustenance, but Malry’s accounting job for a firm that handles catering and mass-production of processed sweets, leading him to the idea of using poison as a weapon to balance the ledger, which, reflecting my own philosophy on the subject, struck me as an unsubtle jab at the unhealthfulness of processed foods.
The novel does have a serious theme beneath its absurdist surface. Malry’s actions reflect a general refusal to live in society – a repudiation of the social contract from someone who was given no choice about participating in it in the first place. In a world of limited choice, Malry makes one of the only choices he feels like he can make, and one of the only ways he can reject the existing order. He did not opt in, and he believes this is the only way he can opt out. Because he feels no empathy, and places no value on any life but his own, he has no compunction about the growing tolls of his “credits,” but even so discovers that he can never quite balance the ledger and even these acts of terror don’t remove him from the system. Is life meaningless? A zero-sum game? Or do we all end our days with a pile of bad debt that we must write off without ever balancing our books? Johnson avoids answers but shines while asking the questions.
Next up: Tom Rachman’s 2011 novel The Imperfectionists, recommended by a reader right after its publication, which so far has been nearly perfect.