What a cock up!

Perhaps it was down to his publishers, or the critics, or perhaps it was because he was ahead of his time. But someone, somewhere made a huge mistake in consigning BS Johnson (right) to the remainder bin of history. Here Jonathan Coe (inset), author of What a Carve Up! and a lifelong fan, restores the novelist, poet, film-maker, football reporter and fighter to his rightful place alongside the great and eccentric figures of post-war literature

This week, you will be able to do something it has not been possible to do for 30 years. Not since The Beatles split up and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, in fact. You will be able to walk into any half-decent high street book- shop and buy a copy of BS Johnson's The Unfortunates.

Bibliophiles will recognise the name, both of the author and the novel. For one thing, this work has recently been changing hands in the catalogues of rare book-dealers for about pounds 250. (The original cover price was one guinea.) But today's reading public, particularly a younger generation for whom literary history starts somewhere between the publication of High Fidelity and The Beach, may be nonplussed by all this. What, after all, is so special about BS Johnson?

Well, there are two special things about The Unfortunates. First, and most importantly, it is an impassioned, unsparing and unforgettable account not just of what it means to watch one of your closest friends dying of cancer, but of what it means to remember that experience, many years later. A wonderful exercise in human sympathy and candid self-portraiture. And secondly, you can shuffle it like a pack of cards. I'll repeat that, for the benefit of those who feel they may not have read me correctly. You can shuffle it like a pack of cards. To elaborate: in Picador's new, handsome, sky-blue edition, The Unfortunates may look like an ordinary hardback novel, but on closer inspection this finely crafted object turns out to be a compact box containing 27 unbound sections, ranging in length from one page to 12. An authorial note informs the prospective reader that "apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such) the other 25 sections are intended to be read in random order". An audacious strategy, but one that makes perfect sense. When a novel addresses itself head on to the subject of chaos - the random havoc that cancer cells wreak on the human body, the aimless, undisciplined way the human mind approaches even the most important subjects - it seems entirely logical that readers should be allowed to re-create this chaos for themselves. At least, that was how it seemed to BS Johnson, poet, film-maker, activist, football reporter and one of the most intriguing novelists on the post-war British literary scene.

My own interest in BS Johnson - which has grown over the years into a full-blown obsession - goes back a quarter of a century. When I was a child, my family used to take a caravanning holiday every summer to the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales, and would pitch camp in a field high above Porth Ceiriad bay. In the manner of English holiday-makers, we became intensely possessive about this part of the world and began to consider that we had some sort of proprietary claim on it. One evening late in 1974, the TV listings announced that a documentary about Porth Ceiriad was to be broadcast. It was being shown past my bedtime (I was 13), but was clearly not to be missed. After News at Ten, we settled down to watch en famille.

Instead of a tourist's-eye view of local beauty spots, what we saw that evening was baffling. A corpulent yet athletic-looking man, bearing some resemblance to an overweight Max Bygraves, ran up and down the beach for 40 minutes gesticulating, expostulating, reciting strange poetry and chattering away about the randomness of human life, his quasi-mystical feelings about the area and, most passionately, the dishonesty of most modern fiction and film-making. With disarming bluntness, the programme was called Fat Man on a Beach. We could not make head or tail of it.

And yet memories of this film, so unlike anything seen on television before or since, stayed with me, and 10 years later, when I was a postgraduate student, I stumbled upon a reissued paperback novel by someone called BS Johnson and realised that this was the same person. Amazingly, it came with a puff from Samuel Beckett, someone not known as a regular provider of jacket quotations. Encouraged by this, I bought the novel, which was called Christie Malry's Own Double Entry, devoured it in a matter of hours (it's less than 30,000 words long) and realised that I had found a new hero.

When I thought about the film that we had watched in a daze of collective bewilderment all those years before, I remembered the sense of fierce engagement, combined with a spirit of childish fun, that had characterised BS Johnson's virtuoso monologue to camera. I remembered his strange, unwieldy grace - the sort of fleet-footed grace you find unexpectedly in a bulky comedian such as John Goodman or Oliver Hardy. And I remembered the wounded eyes that stared at you almost aggressively, as if in silent accusation of some nameless hurt. It was impossible not to recognise the pain behind those eyes. Even so, I had not realised at the time that I had been looking at a dead man. Three weeks after making Fat Man on a Beach, which ends with the image of BS Johnson walking with slow determination out to sea, until the waves close over him, he had committed suicide at his London home. He was 40, and at the height of his literary powers.

I would not be dwelling on this film at such length if Londoners did not have an opportunity to see it next month, when it receives a couple of rare screenings. It should not be missed, because it provides something close to Johnson's last testament, a summation of his strongest beliefs and a vivid snapshot of his engaging personality. Those beliefs include, most famously, his radical conviction that novelists should not make things up at all, because "telling stories is telling lies", and his disdain for the traditional, linear, neo-Dickensian novel, so ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic fluidity of late-20th-century life.

Yes. BS Johnson was (although he disliked the term) an experimentalist. But there was nothing intimidating about Johnson's experimentalism. His novels pre-dated the impact of most European theory, and he had a healthy contempt for formalism. His mantra, borrowed from Frank Lloyd Wright, was that "form follows function": in other words, empirical reality exists and novelists have a duty to capture it (a rather old-fashioned belief, if anything) but, in order to do so, they must continually evolve new literary forms, new modes of writing.

The Unfortunates was the culmination of Johnson's efforts in this direction. In his second novel, Albert Angelo, he had already hit upon a quite brilliant way of collapsing the reader's perception of linear time; in order to provide a "flash-forward", a sudden glimpse into the central character's uncertain future, he had cut a hole through a number of consecutive pages, so that on page 147 it is literally possible to "read through" to an event that takes place on page 151. From that frame of thinking it is really a short step to the unbound sections of The Unfortunates, where the interaction between the narrator's current preoccupation (reporting a Saturday afternoon football match) and uncomfortable memories (the death of his student friend) finds a daring formal expression in the reader's arbitrary choice of chapter order. As a result, incidentally, it is one of the few novels that becomes completely different every time you read it.

Sadly, it was the first of Johnson's books to receive a serious trouncing at the hands of a critical establishment that was finding it hard to stomach his blend of working-class bluntness and radical modernism. Its poor reception was a tough blow to Johnson, who, despite his convivial exterior, was prone to depressive episodes and had a morbid fear of betrayal. Two more novels followed (another was posthumous); acclaim continued to swell in certain quarters, with Nadine Gordimer and Anthony Burgess declaring their admiration; but Johnson felt that he lacked both an audience and his due financial reward. In the last year of his life, in between trips to Paris to drink whiskey with Samuel Beckett, he was applying for jobs in school- teaching and local government, insisting forlornly that he had "proven skills as a writer".

Only the long-term unavailability of his works can account for BS Johnson's continued neglect in his own country. In America, several of his novels have been kept in print by the excellent New Directions, and he is the regular subject of academic and journalistic articles. In Germany, all his novels are available, regarded as modern classics. Is the climate of opinion going to change here? Picador proposes to issue another three of his novels next year. A feature-film adaptation of Christie Malry's Own Double Entry goes before the cameras in November. A full-length academic study is also scheduled for publication. Plus the authorised biography, which I hope to complete soon. Experimentalist or not, BS Johnson is one of the most original, gifted and readable writers this country has produced in the last 50 years, and it looks as though a full-scale revival is on the cards at last. Welcome back, Bryan.

`The Unfortunates', with an introduction by Jonathan Coe, is published by Picador on 8 October. `Fat Man On a Beach' will be screened in a programme of BS Johnson films at the ICA, London, from 11 to 14 October

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