I’ve been sitting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, imagining his frustration at having his experimental novels widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfortunates, published in 1969, involves permutations — so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole afternoon to work out the number.
The Unfortunates has only twenty-seven short chapters, one of them a mere paragraph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full version in a lifetime, however precociously early you start. The reason is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the other twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved experiment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the linear restrictions of the conventional novel. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cover, The Unfortunates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disingenuous instruction that ‘if readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading’. I’ve calculated all the possible permutations of those twenty five interchangeable chapters and the number I’m left with is:
which is otherwise known as fifteen septillion, five hundred and eleven sextillion, two hundred and ten quintillion, forty three quadrillion, three hundred and thirty trillion, nine hundred and eighty five billion, nine hundred and eighty four million different possibilities. You can never hope to read them all and it’s possible that the version you do read will be unique.
Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a different angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘understand without generalisation, to see each piece of received truth, or generalisation, as true only if is true for me’. To generalise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthusiastic about avoiding generalisations while embracing the extraordinary possibilities thrown up by permutations, I planned my lunch.
My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beetroot in vinegar, crumbly Lancashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with butter so thick that she could take an impression of her teeth from the indentations they left, and a mug of tea the colour of an old penny. By calculating the permutations, I made a beetroot salad for lunch today that is both specifically Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a variation on her theme.
BEETROOT, GOAT’S CURD AND WALNUT SALAD WITH MAPLE DRESSING
- Bunch of smallish raw beetroot (bigger than snooker, smaller than hockey), leaves still attached — around one per person
- Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
- Small salad leaves
- Chopped chives
- Handful of walnuts
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Lemon juice
- Maple syrup
Cut the leaves and roots off the beetroot. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beetroot, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight silver-foil parcel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beetroot and arrange on a plate with spoonfuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beetroot leaves and scatter them on a plate, along with some other small salad leaves, the walnuts and a scattering of chives. Make a dressing from the olive oil, lemon juice and maple syrup — four parts oil, two parts lemon, one part syrup. Season to taste and trickle over the salad.
Eat the salad outside, sitting in someone’s else’s seat and staring at someone else’s view.
I imagine that B. S. Johnson would have been a good lunch companion. Sadly, he lost heart, gave up on his ignored experiments and committed suicide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treasure it too.