Christie Malry at Fifty

It is fifty years since the first publication––and radio broadcast––of B. S. Johnson’s penultimate novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.  November of this year also marks fifty years since Johnson’s untimely death.

Fifty years, but both the book and its author have retained their power to surprise and delight.  In Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, the endless experimentation of Johnson meets a plot, which reads surprisingly easily, and combines with an idea, which retains a universal appeal.  How many times in my own life have I referenced Christie Malry; how many times have I mentally notched up a personal credit––or more often a debit––to be accounted for later?  Against a boss; or a neighbour; or the world in general.

In my own writing, I have frequently left the identity or description of the main protagonist deliberately vague, instinctively recognising that the reader will populate this deficit from their own imagination more accurately than I can myself, but Johnson does it explicitly in the case of Christie Malry, telling the reader to make of him what you will, most probably in your own image.

Johnson took his own life, aged just forty, depressed by his perceived failure to achieve literary and commercial success.  Perhaps this is the ultimate price paid for his invention.  Sadly, experimentation does not always pay the bills.  I recall my own frustration upon receiving a rejection letter from a literary agent stating that what they wanted was: “A book just like A Suitable Boy”.  How unimaginative!  When A Suitable Boy has already been written, surely it would be better to search for a book that was not like A Suitable Boy?  It often seems that the path to ‘success’ is merely a duplication of past successes.

B. S. Johnson tried to break this complacent mould.  Whether Johnson succeeded or failed is open to debate.  But I know that nothing moves forward by successful inertia.  Experimental failure––glorious or otherwise––should be celebrated.  It is by experimental failure that the human race has evolved.  It will be the B. S Johnsons and the Christy Malrys who will take us to Mars.

© Fergus Longfellow

Fergus Longfellow is something of a glorious failure.

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