"But we shall die untidily...": The Dark Ontology of B.S. Johnson
The first novel my students and I discussed this semester in ENG 378: Aspects of Postmodernism was B.S. Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973), the last novel Johnson published before committing suicide that same year. (See the Old Lady Decently  was published posthumously.) I was surprised to find that students thoroughly enjoyed this (anti-)novel's ruthlessly dry, absurd, and often hilarious critique of social constructions. Indeed, nothing is safe from its scrutiny. It looks at the world and, in looking, lays bare the artifice of its most treasured, protected customs.
For instance, after the rather sudden death of Christie's mother ("I have lived as much of my life as I wish," she tells Christie, "It is simply time to go" ), the following chapter begins:
'Why is a funeral necessary?' asked Christie.
'It is customary,' said the Undertaker.
'I know it is customary,' said Christie, 'but why is it necessary?'
'It has always gone on,' replied the Undertaker, 'and it always will go on.'
I wish I were capable of such faith, thought Christie. And he will have to sue me for his account. What can he do if I refuse to pay? Were my mother not being cremated, he could threaten to dig her up again. As it is, he is perhaps limited to doing something unpleasant with her ashes.
Christie was the only mourner, economy as to relatives (as to so many other things) being one of the virtues of this novel. The Reverend paid to perform the ceremony sang lustily and unembarrassed by himself (he had done it before) to Christie's uncomfortable stare. The coffin slid jerkily away through the low oak doors bound for the NTGB holocaust. (33)
In the first sentence of the novel, the narrator/author tells us that Christie Malry "was a simple person" (11), and it is this simpleness—regarding a lack of psychological development, intellectual prowess, characterological complexity, social fluency, and ethical exemplarity—that marks Christie's quasi-childlike resistance to the norms and customs he encounters. In this passage, a son questions the memorialization of his mother; he is—quite literally—devoid of any oedipal connection to her; he does not mourn her; he has no need of grief work's transportation from melancholia to mourning. But these features of Johnson's character, far from signaling a sociopathy or psychopathy, indicate that he is a mere optic or filter through which the novel itself defamiliarizes a cherished yet all too common event. Johnson offers us a funeral without tears, regret, or loss (literally, since Christie has no intention of paying the Undertaker or the Reverend). Moreover, Johnson explicitly connects this unsettling defamiliarization and profanation of filial life and duty to the novel's very form and content. What might appear a sad and tragic scene — a funeral with only two attendants (son and Reverend) — is turned into "one of the many virtues of this novel"; the other virtues of the novel correspond — much like this "economy of relatives" — to other economic cuts in characterological motivation, proper plot structure, and realistic scenes and settings that would just get in the way of the novel's purpose and performance. When Christie's boss doubts the suddenness of his mother's death (because of the speed with which the funeral arrangements were made), Christie responds matter-of-factly, "There wasn't any more time. It's a short novel" (40).
But what's the point of this metafictional game? And what of the cruel, questionable use of a jocular adverb ("jerkily") to describe the movement of a coffin, let alone the casual figuration of a mother's cremation as an act of mass murder ("holocaust")? (This image foreshadows Christie's own mass murder of tens of thousands of Londoners later in the novel.)
I want to suggest that Johnson's novel — like many of his others, including the brilliant The Unfortunates (1969) — expresses what I call, borrowing from Eleanor Kaufman and Levi Bryant, a dark ontology. (Bryant is the author of one of the finest books on Deleuze's early work: Difference and Givenness.) Earlier this year, Bryant posted two parts of a provisional manifesto on his website (Larval Subjects); the parts are titled, respectively, "Axioms for a Dark Ontology" and "Post-Nihilist Praxis and Some Further Axioms" (see here and here). While I do not have the space to go into each of the axioms, it might be worthwhile pointing to a few of the most direct:
1. There is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe. Life is an accident and has no divine significance (though it’s obviously important to the living).
2. Nonetheless, many living beings give meaning to the universe. It’s just not inscribed in the things themselves.
14. No God will save us.
20. This world is all we have.
36. The world is riddled with antagonisms and always will be.
39. Existence is indifferent to us, our sufferings, how we live our lives, and whether we continue to exist. We aren’t, however, indifferent to each other.
Leaving aside for a moment Bryant's agenda in this quasi-manifesto (an agenda that really targets disciplinary boundaries, fundamentalisms, and moralities), it is clear to me that B.S. Johnson — and many American Naturalists before him — were already onto this view of the world. Near the end of the novel, after the novelist gives Christie cancer ("I seem to have an attack of the lumps!" ), he thinks, "I need not have bothered, need I, it seems, if it all ends like this: but if not like this for others it stills ends. _______ A mockery of hope, of thinking of the next day. So I need not have bothered: all is useless, pointless, waste ________ [line break] _________ all, all pointless" (178). No meaning; no significance; no divine or natural inscription; no salvation; no extra-worldly recompense; no stability; no salvation or concern for suffering. What universe is this? What world is this? What life is this? In a novel so aware of itself as a novel, so aware of its own constructedness ("nothing happens by accident in this novel" ), the novel seems to approach the permeable boundary of life most closely when it interrupts Christie's plans and pleasures with illness. Though one could read it as yet another ironic acquiescence to narrative convention (death is one of the most common ways to "resolve" a plot's tension, after all), Christie's cancer and his conversation with his own author is untidy, pointless, accidental, sudden, unmotivated, and far from final. So many things are left unsaid, undiscovered, undone, and unexplored. The relapse into cliché in the final conversation between author and character ("That's life [. . .] Life goes on" ) encompasses, along with the darkest humor and irony, the utter absence of a more satisfying solace at the utter pointlessness of it all . . .
On her own deathbed earlier in the novel, Christie's mother begrudgingly offers some vague backstory — which satirizes the impulse of fiction writers to psychologize their characters (what happened to him when he was a kid that made him this way!?) — before launching into a surprisingly dismal conclusion on the nature of human life:
We fondly believe that there is going to be a reckoning, a day upon which all injustices are evened out, when what we have done will beyond doubt be seen to be right, when the light of our justification blazes forth upon the world. But we are wrong: learn, then, that there is not going to be any day of reckoning, except possibly by accident. It seems that enough accidents happen for it to be a hope or even an expectation for most of us, the day of reckoning. But we shall die untidily, when we did not properly expect it, in a mess, most things unresolved, unreckoned, reflecting that it is all chaos. Even if we understand that all is chaos, the understanding itself represents a denial of chaos, and must therefore be an illusion.
[. . .] We all have to go, though we have all been told so too many times. I cannot say I am really content: who could? But I do accept. [. . .] The money in my savings book will bury me decently, if decency is what you decide matters. The rest you must take in the state of chaos in which I found it, and in which I leave it. (30)
Randomness and chaos (the positive articulations of pointlessness, purposelessness, and meaninglessness) do not constitute the novel's end point (its irresolute resolution) but, rather, its persistent starting point and background. Indeed, it seems to me that the problem Johnson develops throughout Christie Malry's Own Double Entry is what to do when one begins to see and to feel the dark ontology of the physical universe (the indifference of the cosmos, nature, and what-have-you to my desires and ills) and the sheer artifice of normalized and naturalized social institutions, rituals, and values. We cannot remedy the untidiness or untimeliness of our exits. And yet, as Bryant suggests, we need not be indifferent to one another or to the ecologies and societies in which we find ourselves embedded; we can create projects, relationships, pleasures, communities, though all of these also bring with them problems, pains, frustrations, violences, and betrayals. There will be no reckoning for these "negative" effects; no divine balance sheet — no day of reckoning or redemption — will govern the operation or the consequences of our shared (and naturalized) artifices. Such balance ("if [balance] is what [we] decide matters") is yet another artifice that we must set up in opposition to chaos, to cosmic indifference, to the sheer accidentality of life and death. "At least your Great Idea prevented you from becoming bored to death with life," the narrators tells Christie in the hospital (178). A pitiful attempt to console, sure; but the evasion of boredom and the conferment of plenitude and sustenance on our own constructions and artifices and relationships is perhaps all the consolation one might find...
And what is Christie's Great Idea? From the back cover of the book: "He encounters the principle of Double-Entry Bookkeepping and adapts them in his own dramatic fashion to settle his account with society. Under the column headed 'Aggravation' for offenses received from society (the unpleasantness of the bank manager is the first on an ever-growing list), debit Christie; under 'Recompense,' for offenses given back (scratching the façade of an office block), credit Christie." So, yes, the entire novel is a quasi-experiment in setting up a simple, non-psychologized character (who is given some ornaments of traditional characterization [a sex drive, a desire for money, a distaste for mistreatment, an allergy to authority]) who creates his own way of negotiating the world. And it is totally absurd:
Who decided I should not be walking seven feet farther that side, or three points west of nor-nor-east, to use the marine abbreviation? . . . I shall list my choices. I may choose to walk for some forty feet along this particular stretch of pavement at a width of approximately eight feet. On one side my freedom is limited by my desire not to be hit by traffic. On the other by whoever built this no doubt speculative office block. _______ The first limitation I accept, forced on me reasonably enough by society. The other I do not accept. (23-24)
To make up for the inconvenience of the building that determines the trajectory of his walk (limiting his freedom of choice and movement), Christie scratches the office block ("Restriction of movement due to Edwardian Office Block [=] 0.05 [debit] [. . .] Scratch on facade of Edwardian Office Block [=] 0.05 [credit]" ). As one can surmise, this method of dealing with the world — a technology that generates frustration, pleasure, excitement, intrigue, and the satisfactions of projects and power for Johnson's main character — gets out of hand. Christie, with no way of actually measuring debits, inflates offenses against him to such an exorbitant numerical figure that he ends up murdering thousands of people by pouring cyanide into a reservoir. "Christie himself wondered: am I not overdrawn? What wrong has society done me that I can offset more than twenty thousand deaths against it? _______ Everything, he decided after a pause, everything" (147).
It may be somewhat easy to dismiss this quasi-terrorist attack, given that it takes place within a fiction (and a fiction that emphasizes its own fictionality). Indeed, Johnson clumsily tries to assuage any misgivings we, his readers, might have at the sheer insanity of Christie's mass murder: "Be assured there are not many more, neither deaths nor words" ). Still, if the problem the novel addresses is the negotiation of naturalized social artifice and cosmic indifference, if the only "solution" it offers is the conscious construction of ways to generate our own pains and pleasures and meanings and solidarities, then what sense can we make of how terribly, horribly, and violently awry its own experiment goes? Perhaps the urge to see Christie as an example of how to negotiate chaos and normativity is just another social norm: the need for an example, a hero, one who makes a difference, a model, a hope. Johnson, the writer of beautiful anti-novels, is not seeking to write a morality tale of how best to inhabit a space between void and norm. That would merely be giving in to yet another norm of fiction, of story-telling, precisely the narrative features he resists in all of his work. If Christie is not a hero (or even an anti-hero), then is pointlessness the point of his Great Idea? No, it seems to me that the readerly interaction with the text itself (the act of reading an object, drawing some sort of intellectual, emotional, and vital sustenance from it) is a norm that Johnson believes to be worth testing, strengthening, and challenging. It is the novel, after all, which has the ability to resist the norms of its own genre's history, laying bare the naturalized artifice of social and literary history, all the while it is itself a provisional composition set against accident, indifference, pointlessness, and meaninglessness.
Despite his challenges to the novel as a genre and even to our most treasured social values ("Of all things, human life was [actually] the easiest to replace" ), Johnson has set himself the task of constructing a "simple" (non-psychologized) character who is himself indifferent to human life. He has set himself the task of making us think about this character, laugh at this character, be befuddled by this character, cheer for this character, wish for the death of this character . . . and perhaps even weep at the death of this character. What more difficult task could there be in the crafting of an artifice? What better way to test our own capacities to confer significance and to challenge readymade significances?
The final challenge Johnson leaves for us at the end of his novel is, in a way, just as surprising as Christie's whimsically maddening destruction of London life. His mother exits untidily, but she does so quickly (without a trace). When it comes to the death of Christie, the paragraphs slow down, reminding us of Christie's "average," non-descript appearance only to show us how unimportant his initial physical description actually was. Perhaps I am a prisoner to sentimentality, but it seems to me that Johnson sets us up here to feel something (an change, an untidy exit, a lonely conclusion) precisely at the point where I expect to feel nothing (the novel works so hard to make me think of Christie as a non-character). But what on earth do I do with this death?
In the image of yourself, Christie is, remember.
His average eyes appeared sunken, ringed with yellow-brown; his average cheeks had sunk too. The general feeling about Christie now is one of sinking.
Not without trace.
So that the whole face seemed like a caricature of its earlier self, the mouth assumed an unnatural rictus, the skin became tauter and grayer, the lines standing out more whitely.
Now at shorter and shorter intervals he made them aware of his need for the cushioning drugs. They gave them to him, palliatives, morphine derivatives, then heroin itself.
When pneumonia set in the other patients quickly noticed and called it the death rattle. In deference to them they moved Christie into a side ward on his own. They did not treat the pneumonia: there was no point, though strictly they should have done.
Christie they kept unconscious.
________________Xtie died. (183)