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Like A Fiery Elephant
The Story of B.S. Johnson
by Scott Esposito
Why has Jonathan Coe—author of several distinguished, if decidedly non-experimental, novels—spent the last seven years writing a biography of B.S. Johnson, a writer who tried to write books that made Ulysses look like a starched shirt? And does this odd coupling result in a worthwhile book?
The answer to the first question is to be found in the introduction to Coe's biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant.
In the three decades since Johnson's death, the British novel has reinvigorated itself in other ways, ways which he did not foresee: not by 'making it new' with ever more radical attempts at formal innovation, but by recognizing the multi-ethnicity of modern Britain and opening itself to influences from other cultures...
...there are so many other things to admire in Johnson's work, even if you reject his dogma: his command of language, his freshness, his formal ingenuity, the humanity that shines through even his most rigorous experiments, his bruising honesty. For all of these, he remains one of my greatest literary heroes.
As to the second question, Is the book any good? Unequivocally yes. Coe's biography is unequivocally spectacular because, like Johnson's novels, it combines formal innovation with a humanistic portrayal of a compelling protagonist.
Coe starts things off with a short section entitled "A Life in Seven Novels" in which he provides an overview of Johnson's works. We begin with his debut Traveling People, in which "Johnson [is] testing the water: it contains plenty of experiments with form, but they are not radical. Each chapter is written in a different mode (third-person, epistolary, film script, stream of consciousness, and so on), but this veneer of stylistic adventurousness hides a conventional enough Bildungsroman." By the time Johnson reaches his third novel Trawl, he has discovered and embraced his personal dogma: that novelists should tell no lies, but instead strive to tell only the truth about themselves. "It is, according to the author himself, 'all interior monologue, a representation of the inside of my mind... the closest one can come in writing.'... Trawl contains no plot and no invented characters." Following Trawl is The Unfortunates, an infamous work composed of several unbound signatures delivered to the reader in a box—the reader picks at random, reading in whatever order chance dictates. And then there's Johnson's second-to-last novel, House Mother Normal,
a novel which shows one single (and fictional!) event from ten different points of view. [It] is set inside an old people's home. This nine inmates are sitting down to dinner, along with the House Mother herself, and Johnson gives us ten interior monologues . . . each successive character is more infirm than the last, so that the monologues get more and more fragmented, partial and incoherent as the book progresses . . . Finally we get the House Mother's own version of events, which turns out to be even more unreliable—or at least bizarre—than those of her elderly charges.
"A Life In Seven Novels" is a strong opening, familiarizing us with Johnson's work and philosophy, while tantalizing us with clues to the demons that he struggled with throughout his career. Coe chooses an ingenious method for depicting the latter, one worthy of Johnson himself: commentary on 160 fragments of documents from Johnson's life. The thoroughness of this section is breathtaking, as Coe quotes from not only novel excerpts and letters, but also articles Johnson wrote, unpublished pieces, abandoned novels, scribbled notes, and even a request to Beatle Paul McCartney (spelled "MacCartney") to grant him £50,000 as a fellow experimental artist.
Although he is writing a biography, Coe isn't afraid to open up his novelistic bag of tricks. He makes it clear up front that he will be taking liberties to project himself into Johnson's mind and complete the trajectories sketched out by the fragments. The result is a believable account of a stubborn, conflicted man destroyed by his rigid determination to write shockingly difficult works, even as their lack of commercial viability tore at his confidence, fed his indignation, and put him at odds with larger and larger segments of the British literary community. Coe reveals a man with no center, soaring when his work was reviewed favorably and mired in depressed rage whenever his art met with the tiniest slight. This unflattering portrait is tempered by an understanding of the complexities behind Johnson's gruff exterior, imbuing Coe's subject with the universal humanity Coe so admires in Johnson's characters.
One might think that giving us a compelling life of a brilliant writer would be enough for Coe, but Like A Fiery Elephant has yet another dimension. The central dilemma in Johnson's life was that he could not reconcile what he felt in his heart with the fact that the novels his heart told him to write were simply not going to be appreciated as he thought they should be. This is a dilemma that every good writer must resolve; either she will plow forward, market be damned, or forever remain a prisoner to commercial deities. By presenting Johnson's painful thrashings over this dilemma, Coe makes Like A Fiery Elephant not only an engrossing biography, but also a profound investigation into what the writing life is like.