Picador 2013, originally published by Collins 1973
The title of this novel may seem a bit rude, but it refers to a method of accountancy invented by an Italian monk in the late fifteenth century (apparently).
Christie Malry, being a simple sort of young man, needs to earn a living. And so, being without any sort of qualifications, and with a fear of criminal methods, he begins work at a bank. After a few months of this menial occupation, something better comes along, namely an accountancy position at the firm of Tapper’s, which manufacture cakes and sweets. It’s while undertaking his accountancy training that he comes across the system of double-entry book-keeping (which Johnson informs us was invented by a Tuscan contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Luca Bartolomeo Pacioli), and which inspires him to set up a system of moral double-entry book-keeping. For every ill the world enacts upon him, he will take some revenge, some counter-measure, against Them.
How Christie gets on in this endeavour, while making friends at his new place of work and meeting a fabulous girl called the Shrike at the Hammersmith Palais, is detailed in this short novel (187 pages). It sounds quite dull when summarised, but is funny and mordant, and very very aware of its artificiality. Johnson addresses the reader directly, not describing Christie except in such terms as to specifically request that the reader uses their own imagination, and there are frequent references to the fact that everyone in the book is a character in a novel, such as, “‘Parsons looks like being indisposed for the rest of this novel,’ went on Headlam.” (p95)
This does create something of a distance, but Johnson writes his creations with a dash of humanity so that although they are obviously not real, it’s almost possible to forget it. As a result of the unreality, the first occasion of Christie and the Shrike having sex (which is described in the most wonderfully dead-pan kind of way) is an unrealistic fantasy of sex but which is far from soft porn. Then there’s Christie’s mother, who has one chapter of exposition and then dies, and which provokes this bit of dialogue:
SUPERVISOR: Where were you yesterday afternoon?
CHRISTIE: At my mother’s funeral.
SUPERVISOR: Why didn’t you ask permission?
CHRISTIE: She died at very short notice. In fact, with no notice at all, on the evening before last.
SUPERVISOR: Long enough for you to arrange the funeral for the next day?
CHRISTIE: There wasn’t any more time. It’s a short novel.
Christie’s revenges for being subjected to incessant advertising, general exploitation by his place of work, dressings-down by his boss, and other such irritants, are usually inventive, and detailed in example double-entry sheets for each month. The revenges become more and more elaborate and detailed, and then Johnson ends the book in the only possible way.
I’d never really heard of Johnson before, but this reissue of the last novel to be published in his lifetime comes with an informative introduction by John Lanchester. Johnson was apparently one of the best-known novelists in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, known, as the blurb states, “for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his unique ways of putting them into practice.” Normally I’m not a huge fan of such artificiality and metafiction, but Johnson writes very well, and his prose and plotting is amusing and thought-provoking. I enjoyed this a lot.