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BS Johnson's fifth novel, subtitled "A Geriatric Comedy", is inventive, unique and wonderfully humane. Like the rest of his hugely important and criminally overlooked work this is as funny and as profound a book as any you are ever likely to read. Consisting of eight 21-page monologues by each of the named inhabitants of an old people's home, and a final piece by the House Mother herself, Johnson, without any hint of sentimentality, draws out an evening scene in which each of the NERs (no effective relatives) suffers at the hands of the House Mother. Before the start of each monologue a CQ score is given (marking a regularly used test for senile dementia: out of 10 simple questions, such as where are you now? what day is this? the 10 answers represent compos mentis on a sliding scale to infirmity). This enables Johnson, through his usual playful use of language and typography, to represent in his writing the almost incommunicable. The old people suffer, some can barely speak, others are dominated, obsessed with particular memories that mark important failures or accomplishments, moments which resonate now daily life is so dull.
Johnson is in the company of Beckett here, able to use language itself to show up what language's limitations do to our ability to communicate, and how they form/inform his writing about that inability. Focusing on old age, its degradations and disintegrations, House Mother Normal manages to be both profound and touching. For an avant garde novel to accomplish this and yet be hugely readable, entertaining and very funny is testament to the huge skills of one of the finest writers England has recently produced. --Mark Thwaite
Johnson's fifth novel, originally published in Britain in 1971, takes place during Social Evening at a home for the aged. The night's bizarre activities (among them a game of Pass the Parcel in which the "prize" is a package of dog droppings) are seen through the eyes of first one resident then another, until we come to despotic House Mother herself. The picture that emerges is of a shabby band of survivors, some of them scarcely conscious, lorded over by a psychopath: "I disgust them in order that they may not be disgusted with themselves." An original if dispiriting performance, part experiment, part dirty joke, for collections of modernist fiction. Grove Koger, Boise P.L., Id.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.