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

DoubleEntry

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 187 pages; 2001.

What goes around, comes around. This is the premise behind this short, quirky and experimental novel, by the late B.S. Johnson, which was first published in 1973. Sadly, the author killed himself not long after publication.

Christie Malry, a simple man from a humble background, decides that if he can’t have money he will work close to it. He therefore takes a lowly job at a bank where he learns the principles of double-entry book-keeping. It is only when he moves to a new position as an invoice clerk in a sweet factory that he decides to apply the system of credit and debit to his own life. This system allows him to “even up” all the hard (and not so hard) knocks that society throws at him, so that if he feels aggrieved by something — for instance, his boss yelling at him — he must balance the books by doing something to accrue credit — for instance, playing a prank on his colleagues.

As the novel progresses Christie’s credits become more and more outlandish — and criminal. Bomb hoaxes, death threats and then poisoning of the water supply become the order of the day. Eventually, Christie’s account is settled in full in a very karma-like if tragic way.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, which is set in post-war Britain (Hammersmith, west London, my local neighbourhood, to be precise), is best described as a black comedy strangely reminscent of the early work of Iain Banks. It’s very dark and very funny. But it’s also very experimental, with the author’s voice constantly intruding, so that the reader is able to see how the novel has been constructed. This is a good example:

An attempt should be made to characterise Christie’s appearance. I do so with diffidence, in the knowledge that such physical descriptions are rarely of value in a novel. It is one of the limitations; and there are so many others […] I have often read and heard said many readers apparently prefer to imagine the characters for themselves. This is what draws them to the novel, that it stimulates their imagination. Imagining my characters, indeed! Investing them with characteristics quite unknown to me, or even at variance with such descriptions as I have given! Making Christie fair when I might have made him dark, for an instance, a girl when I have shown he is a man? What writer can compete with the reader’s imagination! Christie is therefore an average shape, height, weight, build, and colour. Make him what you will: probably in he image of yourself. You are allowed complete freedom in the matter of warts and moles, particularly; as long as he has at least one of either.

Ultimately, this book is a fast and funny read backed up by an alarming plot brimming with anger, but some readers may find it too “gimmicky” or experimental. I very much enjoyed it and read it in one sitting.

2 thoughts on “‘Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry’ by B. S. Johnson

  1. I think this is Johnson’s best novel. I’ve also read Albert Angelo, which is also very good (and for experimentalists, contains a hole cut in one page so you can see what happens later in the book!) and a largely autobiographical tale of life as a teacher in a rough school. But then Johnson didn’t really believe in making things up – “telling stories is telling lies,” as he rather primly put it.
    House Mother Normal is a story set in an old people’s home, told in the voices of several residents in various states of dementia and the house mother. Its tricksiness comes in the fact that each character discusses the same events on the same place on each page, ie if narrator X is discussing a particular event on page 3, line 12 of their section, then all the other narrators will also be discussing that event on page 3, line 12 of their own section. The book also contains a grotesque sexual act for which I think the word “canilingus” might reasonably be coined.
    The Unfortunates is Johnson’s ‘famous’ book-in-a-box, where all the chapters are unbound and can be shuffled and read randomly. Nice idea, but sadly the story is not particularly interesting, based on writing a report on a football match while remembering a friend who died of cancer. Of course the story could never really have a proper structure given the random-chapter novelty.
    And that is pretty much all I know about B.S. Johnson’s work…

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