A switch cycle of stories spread across my chess table, and like the game of chess, there is a first and last move—the variations are not in order. Twenty-seven short stories, to be more specific, some were one page, and others six, but all the stories were part of a timeline for me to choose my first story of B.S. Johnson’s, The Unfortunates. I parted the First and the Last pages before placing half of the remaining 25 pages clockwise, and then the other half counterclockwise. You are given two instructions by the author: One, a person can read The Unfortunates in order, and two, a person can shuffle the stories within the first and the last. I chose the latter.
The Unfortunates is a boxed series of stories between the first and last chapter. It does not matter how your stories are placed, the story will be the same. I have read The Unfortunates twice, each reading revolving the stories; and in each revolution I received the same conclusion. This is the point of B.S. Johnson’s intention, to take the chronological method away from the norm of reading a novel. He does so remarkably.
In the novel, you follow the narrator who talks about his friend, Tony, a friend dying of cancer. The narrator, a journalist, begins reporting a story about City, a football team in England. You empathize about the misdiagnosis of Tony, because of how the narrator and June, his wife, experience the pain. There is a moment of euphoria for June because the large lump of cancer is extracted from Tony, and she feels a new beginning. We meet Tony’s family, who doesn’t know he’s sick. Tony and June have a baby, the narrator gets a girlfriend, and a friend commits suicide. B.S. Johnson delivers the daily life of these young people at the beginning of their adult lives, and the deterioration of Tony near the end of his. Upon reflecting Tony’s death, the narrator feels as if the longevity of life between him and Tony may not have been much. The narrator: “Death. Let the dead live with the dead.”
B.S. Johnson’s literary exercise is to show that no matter the order, the beginning and conclusion of his story will remain the same. The Unfortunates is a great novel in respect to literature and its artistic attributes of physical layout.