Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry

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

"It did not take him long to realise that he had not been born into money; that he would therefore have to acquire it as best he could; that there were unpleasant (and to him unacceptable) penalties for acquiring it by those methods considered to be criminal by society; that there were other methods not (somewhat arbitrarily)  considered criminal by society; and that the course most likely to benefit him would be to place himself next to the money, or at least to those who were making it. He therefore decided that he should become a bank employee."

I finally got to read something by B.S.Johnson and I will be looking out for more. This comedy of morals is an all out attack on the 'realist' novel and draws on a tradition that includes Nathanael West and Flann O'Brien. It is also easy to see the influence of this on What a Carve Up! by Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe.

Johnson is withering about the expectations of the reader for detail. I have seen synopses which talk about Christie's story but it would seem more accurate to me to start a synopsis something like this: "A writer who has lost faith in the novel writes a novel. He can't be bothered with realistic detail for that is, after all, the literary equivalent of photocopying. However, his loss of faith in the world, being stronger than his loss of faith in the novel, impels him to write a scabrous comedy where the minor irritations of the average life give rise to imaginary acts of revenge on behalf of the average man. "

Johnson does give us a description of Christie, one we can find every morning in our own mirror: "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 the 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."

Johnson gives Christie Malry a mother because he has to have one:"My son: I have for the purposes of this novel been your mother for the past eighteen years and five months to the day if I assume your conception to have taken place after midnightNow that you have had your great idea and are set upon your life's work there is nothing further for me to do." And then he takes her away, which entails a funeral.
"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 the next day?
CHRISTIE: There wasn't any more time. It's a short novel."

When she is dying, Christie's mother, in an "inelegant piece of dialectic" notes that life is untidy and nothing is properly reckoned, that all is chaos, and  "Even if we understand that all is chaos, the understanding itself represents a denial of chaos, and must therefore be an illusion." But, as the first line of the book lets us know, "Christie Malry was a simple person." He finds the "system of Double-Entry" he learns about through a "correspondence course in Accountancy" meets his desire for simplicity. If only it could be applied to life itself! Bingo, Christie has his great idea. (Christie actually has his brilliant idea before his mother dies but so few people, if any, will notice this flaw in my argument that I think I will leave it in. Anyway, there is a dialectical relationship between chaos and order set up which can then be explored in the rest of the novel and also in this blog post.)

At the top of this post I, by means of a quote, drew attention to the fact that Christie had taken the job in the bank in order to be close to money, and perhaps find out how to gather much of it to himself. He certainly doesn't want a permanent, pensionable position like many of his colleagues. "What Christie thought, however (and how privileged we are to be able to know it) was that he would consider himself to be a failure if he had to depend on a bank pension at sixty." But the bank does not meet his expectations financially and exceeds his expectations on what we might call the debit side. "Christie had expected to have to work hard, and to find the work both uncongenial and menial, at first. What he did not expect was the atmosphere in which he was expected to work, and which was created by his fellow-employees or colleagues as they were in the habit of calling one another. This atmosphere was acrid with frustration, boredom and jealousy, black with acrimony, pettiness and bureaucracy."

Johnson also allows some light to shine into Christie's life by creating a girlfriend for him:
"But Christie's girlfriend! I shall enjoy describing her! Come along, what's your name, lets have your name.
It'll come, Like everything else. Try.                                                                                      Where does she work?                                                    In a butcher's, say.                                            She could be called the Shrike, then. Which will be too obvious to some, too obscure to others.                                  Ah."
I have attempted here to replicate somewhat the appearance of the type on the page. Johnson uses gaps to represent his halting imagination. The name is a gag, for those who found it too obscure, as the shrike is also known as the butcher bird. It is also, in my mind if nowhere else, connected to the crucifixion by its practice of impaling its prey on long thorns. It also has a literary connection, a subterranean link to another book about a figure who wishes to make good the evils of the world in a different way to Christie, Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, which also has a character called Shrike.

I have already mentioned Christie's brilliant idea without actually saying what it was. It is to institute a system of double-entry between him and THEM, where everything bad that appears in the AGGRAVATION column has to have a balancing amount entered into the RECOMPENSE column. It's basic book-keeping.

He's easily aggravated, finding issue with the Edwardian builders who had decided to place the buildings that restrict his freedom of movement, although that is assigned a fairly nominal fee of 5p. But considering how little Christie will allow for some of his more spectacular revenges, that's a tidy enough sum.

I have included one of the pages from the ledger that are a feature of the novel. Later pages will feature much larger sums as Christie looks back over his life and assigns values to larger issues such as: "Revelation of Holy storytelling" or "Socialism not given a chance"

Similarly, the actions taken to balance the books move on from scratching the facade of the Edwardian building or returning junk mail envelopes empty to larger and more grandiose schemes of revenge on individuals and society in general.

A "cell of one", Christie becomes a one man Angry Brigade (see this POST) using alarm clocks and train sets to take increasingly elaborate steps to ensure the world remains in karmic balance with him. He develops a system to try to ensure that, unlike Guy Fawkes, he doesn't get caught. Nor does he. "Scotland Yard is Baffled" is the title of one very short chapter, although not the shortest. That one is called "Not the longest Chapter in this Novel".

Another chapter is called "The Duel of Dictionary Words Between Skater and Wagner; and the Revelation of the Latter's Nickname", and it highlights Johnson's use of words not quite in common usage. Threats of "trituration" and jeers of "cryptorchid" are lightly joined into a phone conversation between Christie's boss at his post-bank position in Tapper's, manufacturers of sweets and cakes; and the owner of Skater's restaurant, angry that his letter of complaint (that Christie destroyed) has not been answered. For your own ease of reference I am including a useful mini-dictionary of some less usual words right here:

Pacioli, Luca; Summa de arithmetica, geometria,
proportioni et proportionalita. Venice [1494]
The first book in which the system
of Double-Entry was codified.
An Incunabula.

Christie Malry's Own Dictionary

Exeleutherostomise - to speak freely
Incunabula - a book, pamphlet or other document that was printed, and not handwritten, before the start of the 16th century in Europe.
Fastigium - the highest point of a fever or disease; the period of greatest development of an infection.
Sphacelated - gangrenous; necrotic
Trituration - the process of reducing a substance to powdered form
Helminthoid - wormlike
Cryptorchid - failure of one or both testes to descend into the scrotum.
Eirenicon - a proposition that attempts to harmonize conflicting viewpoints
Nucifrage - Nutcracker
Campaniform - in the shape of a bell.
Sufflamination - obstruction
Coleopterous - beetle-like
Orthopterous - an order of insects, including the cockroaches, mantids, walking sticks, crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids

The thing is, though, for all the distancing and overt references to the fictional nature of the book, there is a real passion running through the book, and not just of the biblical kind. The brief descriptions of office work and its internecine warfares have the feel of the coalface, and Christie's tour of Tapper's confectioners with the wages and the irrepressible Hedlam (known as Bedlam) is indeed a "rewarding pilgrimage". The brassy vulgarity of the nut ladies; the "sheen of profession passion" in the eyes of the foreman overseeing the "worshipped machines" "slowly going DOOM, DOOM, DOOM, DOOM, as if in imitation of the marine engines in that MacNiece poem." Indeed, as noted in the introduction, Johnson had worked in "the accounts department of a local factory." It is clear that while this book is not realist, it contains much that is very real, and that was very personal to Johnson.

I have got this far without mentioning religion, which is another key element in the book, and the astute reader will have noticed the Christ in Christie. Here is Christie's rationale for attacking religion: "'Because it's there,' explained Christie, patiently, to his beloved, 'as long as it's there and has so much power then it must be open to attack. It's been continuously discredited throughout its history, but it's still there and it still goes on with its confidence tricks as though nothing much had happened. It's corrupt, lying, inefficient, useless and rapacious. To name but a few. What d'you expect me to do - love it?'"" (Note to fundamentalists; if you want to shoot the author of this piece you will have to exhume him. If you wish to do so go ahead, I think he'd have liked the idea. (Johnson died by his own hand in 1973, the year this book was first published.)) And of course, while the oft used "reckoning" is a book-keeping term, it is also a biblical one.

There was a film made which I have not seen, although I have the soundtrack which is by the rather wonderful Luke Haines, who has often been attracted to terrorism as a form of entertainment. I rather feel he missed an opportunity to have a crossover hit by including a version of this Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack:

The soundtrack is a belter though, and does include a cover of Nick Lowe's  I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass. The film looks interesting and I will try to look at it soon, and maybe even use it as an excuse to write further on this furiously funny farce. I have also invested in a copy of The Unfortunates, Johnson's novel in a box. His is a name that you will see more of around here.

The full soundtrack can be heard at this link - Christie Malry's Own Double Entry [OST]

"that MacNiece poem", in full. He seems somewhat of a spiritual kindred to Johnson, particularly in playful pieces like Bagpipe Music; "All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi."


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post on this, Seamus. This is a book that I seem to have known about for many years, a novel whose central idea found its way into my cultural consciousness as my father must have read it on its release. I certainly recall him talking about it. It's interesting you make the link with Jonathan Coe and What a Carve Up! as I hadn't thought about that. It's a great point though as there's something of the 'everyman' about Christie.

    Your post also reminds me that I have Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (and another West) sitting in my piles of unread books so I should get around to him at some point.

    1. It's funny, I thought that What a Carve Up! owed a debt to Flann O'Brien, but it may have been transmitted via Johnson. There is definitely an influence from Johnson and I am now thinking of getting Coe's biography of Johnson. First The Unfortunates, though.
      If you are thinking of reading Miss Lonelyhearts I would be interested in a readalong, as I've been meaning to reread it for a while. I even replaced my lost (lent out) copy of West's Collected Novels a few years back.

    2. I'd love to do another readalong with you (and any others who might be interested in Miss Lonelyhearts). Would May or June work for you? I've got a few other commitments/plans for the next few months, but late spring or summer would be good for me.

    3. That would suit me fine, Jacqui. You pick a week and we'll see if anyone else cares to join in.

    4. That's great. Just looked at West's wiki page and Lonelyhearts was published on 8th April (1933). Would you be able to do early April as it might be a nice tie-in with the publication date? if not, or if it would be awkward for you in any way, then May/June would be absolutely fine for me.

    5. Fabulous! Looking forward to it. J

  2. Great review. You're spot on when you mention the 'passion' running through the text. Despite all the meta-textual techniques Johnson was never quite as intellectually icy as he wished to be!
    Well worth reading Coe's biography, written in a Johnsonesque style!

    1. Thanks Grant. I think that a lot of the meta-textual stuff is driven by a concern to tell the truth, and the truth is that novels are just projections of their authors interests and concerns. I was intrigued to read that his final novel, See the Old Lady Decently, includes personal photographs etc. However, it has not been reprinted and is well beyond my price limit. Unless I become obsessed..