B.S. Johnson - House Mother Normal (1971)

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Rating: A-

Towards the end of my avant-garde literature class, we were tasked with doing an independent book presentation based on a list of books the professor prepared as possible additions or substitutions for future versions of the class. My gf’s housemate did a presentation of House Mother Normal and The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson and hated both of them. But she’s a conservative Christian who doesn’t particularly deal well with anything outside her comfort zone (no clue why she was taking an avant-garde lit class). Anyway, I asked if I could buy the books off her and ended up getting them for free because she thought they were trash.

House Mother Normalreads like a more accessible Samuel Beckett. It’s constructed out of nine, 21 page stream of conscious sections following men and women in a retirement home and their nurse; as you might be able to guess each section has the same number of pages because they all correspond to the same events. Each section is prefaced with a list of each patient’s bodily stats (sight, mobility, hearing, etc) including how well the person scored on a senility test. The book starts with the most cognizant before descending down to two who can heartbreakingly barely form coherent thoughts. Johnson uses blank space to show absence of thought; sometimes there are pages of blank space.

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Because of the patients’ limited mental capacities, the book has an element of perverse mystery. Through each chapter you get a better idea what exactly the patients are doing during their day. Even the one’s with more mental cognizance than the others are often drawn to lives filled with regret or their painful limbs. The final chapter reveals quite a bit about the character’s day, leaving room to go back for another read through.  

House Mother Normal’s investigation of old age is entirely devoid of the veneration given to the elderly, but full of brutally honest and heartbreaking passages. But wait, I haven’t mentioned the house mother is a psychopath who subjects her patients to disgusting games of pass the parcel and has them joust each other during their exercise time. To throw another curveball, House Mother Normal is a black comedy. Granted, it’s full of some of the darkest humor ever to be put to the page, but I swear you’ll be laughing arse pains and old people knocking each other over with brooms. I mean Beckett had a lot of humor in his works, but Johnson really pushes it over the edge into beyond unsettling terrain. This book shouldn’t work, and it probably doesn’t, but it’s such a disturbing and unique work that I highly recommend tracking it down. I won’t spoil it, but the ending is so grotesquely ridiculous you wouldn’t even believe it if I did.

-James P. 

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