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This article is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

See B. S. Johnson Decently: Part II Nicolas Tredell

Johnson's project of fidelity to autobiographical truth is less central to his work after The Unfortunates. His next novel, House Mother Normal, marks a return to fiction though, like The Unfortunates, it is preoccupied with mortality. Through the interior monologues of eight old people in a home, it powerfully evokes the anamneses, amnesias, aphasias, absences, anxieties, abjections and agonies of ageing, of drawing near death. It is the most tightly structured of all Johnson's novels; one could suggest an analogy between this and the institutional regimentation of the old people, especially given the convergence of House Mother and author in the final section. Each monologue covers the same period of fictional time and physical space in the book; each line of each monologue (or, with some characters, blank spaces) corresponds to the same line in all the other monologues. The reader has to work out, by mentally sorting and combining the monologues and stitching together the dialogues, what is happening.

The action of the novel takes place during a 'Social Evening' at the home. This includes a 'tourney' in which two wheelchair-bound inmates, pushed by two others who can still walk, joust with mops; a work period during which the inmates fill bottles for House Mother's illicit business; a game of Pass the Parcel where the 'gift' is a waste product of House Mother's Alsatian dog; and, as a finale, a sexual act performed by the dog and the naked House Mother before her captive audience. The ...

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