Journal Article

Narrative Wreckage: Cancer and the Unfortunate Body in B.S. Johnson


In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag claims that cancer is the perfect metaphorical descriptor for late-capitalism’s unbridled consumption and wild proliferation. Cancer is a disease she suggests that disdains order; it defies the reason of science, and in so doing, accurately reflects the decentred subject of contemporary philosophy and politics. The irrationality of the disease inhibits narrativisation, imbuing the stories we tell about it with an anxiety that often manifests itself in the use of metaphors of wars, battles, invasions and survivorship. In the realm of fiction, B.S. Johnson’s experimental anti-novel The Unfortunates (1969) stands as one attempt to represent the arbitrariness of cancer and its ability to deconstruct the hermeneutic reliability of narrative. Famously published as a collection of twenty-seven independent sections which the novel details the stream of consciousness of its narrator as he meditates on the death from cancer of his close friend, Tony. Unable to make sense of this death in any linear or consequential manner, the text reflects in the manner (and limitations) of its construction not just the randomness of illness, but also the proliferation of empty stories that are produced to explain it. Through close examination of Johnson’s representation of the male body in illness, this essay explores the impossibility of controlling meaning when it comes to the great unknown of cancer. It centrally address the obliquity with which the diseased and malfunctioning male body has been represented, and suggests that the narrative wreckage that constitutes Johnson’s experiment is less a localised strategy and more a textual microcosm of the collective despair at the irresistible profusion of cancer.

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Lea, Daniel

Oxford Brookes departments

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences\Department of English and Modern Languages


Year of publication: 2015
Date of RADAR deposit: 2017-03-31

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