Sunday, March 06, 2011

the last book I read

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson.

Now I know it sounds like some sort of sex thing, but the reference is actually to double-entry book-keeping, which, according to John Lanchester's foreword "has a claim to be the most important business tool ever invented", and was reputedly first perfected by an Italian monk named Luca Pacioli in the late 15th century. Suffice it to say that as long as you know that it's about accounting and debits and credits and shit you won't need any more detailed knowledge here.

Christie Malry is a man of simple tastes, and one of them is a general desire to own money. Reasoning that a good starting point would be to understand how money works and moves around, he gets a job at a bank, and then subsequently, having taken a course in double-entry bookkeeping, leaves and goes to work in the accounts department of Tapper's, a sweet company.

Soon he hatches his master plan: what if he were to set up a ledger documenting all the annoyances, major and minor, inflicted upon him in his daily life (he calls this debit column "AGGRAVATION")? Then he could also perform selected acts of revenge against the world, which could be recorded in a credit column (entitled "RECOMPENSE"), and thus the delicate balance of the Force would be restored.

These acts of revenge start out small: failing to pass on an important letter at work, minor vandalism, theft of various stationery items, but soon escalate into a series of bomb hoaxes, and ultimately into full-scale terrorism: blowing up some Inland Revenue offices with a toy train packed with gelignite, stealing a truck loaded with barrels of cyanide and dumping the whole lot in a reservoir. Everything, large or small, is recorded in the ledger with accompanying credit or debit amounts according to Christie's idiosyncratic internal calculations, and with a nice dry matter-of-factness: "Pork Pie Purveyors Ltd. bomb hoax, £2.40; Death of 20,479 innocent west Londoners, £26,622.70". However, just as Christie is planning his masterpiece (blowing up the Houses of Parliament), he finds his account is about to be closed by circumstances beyond his control.

B.S. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1973, was what would then have been termed an "experimental" or "avant-garde" novelist, and would probably now be called "postmodern" - basically we're back in the realms of metafiction, a bit like Kleinzeit, a book with which this one shares quite a number of similarities: regular authorial intervention, unexpected medical emergencies, general air of absurdity (though this book is a lot darker). This is the first of Johnson's novels I've read, and it sounds in many ways as if it's one of his least experimental (it was also the last one published in his lifetime) - previous works included a book with holes cut in the pages to give you a sneak preview of some of the later action, and, most famously, a "novel in a box" where the chapters could be read in any order the reader desired. The arch chapter titles and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall here seem pretty mild by comparison.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry was made into a film in 2001 (although it wasn't released until 2006, as 2001 was a bad time for films glorifying random acts of terrorism). I haven't seen it, but I wonder how the more surreal elements of the book could have been translated to the screen, and Nick Moran seems like a bit of a stereotypical Cockney geezer, and a bit too pretty, for the title role. On the upside it does feature the lovely Kate Ashfield as Christie's girlfriend, referred to only as "the Shrike" in the book, but given the courtesy of an actual name (Carol) here, and also a soundtrack by the excellent Luke Haines, formerly of The Auteurs.

Anyway, I respectfully suggest that you want to read a few books that bugger around with structure and convention from time to time, just as you want to read a few Dick Francis books as well now and then. Light and shade, yin and yang, and all that. That being the case I recommend this one - furthermore, although it is nominally 187 pages long, the constant chapter breaks and occasional crazy text formatting mean it's probably barely half that in terms of "real" text.

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