b.s. johnson’s house mother:”i disgust them in order that they may not be disgusted with themselves”

the disgust of b.s. johnson


B. S. Johnson’s fifth novel, House Mother Normal: A Geriatric Comedy, first published in 1971, takes place during a social evening at a nursing home. The evening’s action includes a game of “Pass the Parcel” for which the prize is a package of dog shit. The story, such as it is, is told by eight residents of the home—who run the spectrum from completely lucid to hopelessly mindless— and the nursing home’s “House Mother.”  Each resident gets precisely 21 pages to describe the evening’s events, a technique which produces a blurred picture which does not come intofocus until the psychopathic House Mother has her turn. As she notes: "I disgust them in order that they may not be disgusted with themselves." House Mother Normal is part experiment, part dirty joke, and wholly original. A sample:


What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?



From the Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature:


Johnson, B. S. (1933 – 1973)

Novelist, poet and dramatist.


His novels were highly experimental, taking as their main subject his own life as a novelist and the nature of the novel. He employed a whole range of postmodernist narrative devices for questioning the boundaries of fact and fiction. He claimed to write, not fiction, but `truth in the form of a novel’. Travelling People (1963) uses a different viewpoint or narrative mode for each chapter, including a film scenario, letters and typographical effects. In Alberto Angelo (1964) the `author’ breaks into the narrative to discuss his own techniques, aims and sources. The Unfortunates (1969) is a loose-leaf novel of 27 sections, 25 of which can be read in any order. Johnson committed suicide at the age of 40, soon after completing See the Old Lady Decently (1975), which is based around the death of his mother in 1971, and incorporates family documents and photographs. His other novels are: Trawl (1966); House Mother Normal (1971); Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973). He also wrote plays, screenplays, television scripts and several collections of poems.


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