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House Mother Normal


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Title: House Mother Normal
Author: B.S.Johnson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971
Length: 204 pages
Availability: House Mother Normal
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  • A Geriatric Comedy

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting effort with some nice touches

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 17/7/2004 Nicholas Lezard
London Rev. of Books . 5/8/2004 Frank Kermode
The NY Times A 29/6/1986 James Marcus

  From the Reviews:
  • "The final novel in this collection, House Mother Normal, about the residents of an old people's home, does make extraordinary use of blank space, random typography and the like -- but that is Johnson's way of representing minds disintegrating into nothingness." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Like his admirer Samuel Beckett, Johnson locates his voices among conditions of such deprivation that even the most miserable memories are gilded by comparison: this paradox fuels equal parts of comedy and pathos. Never sentimental, at once corrosive and elegiac, House Mother Normal is a remarkable achievement." - James Marcus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ultimately Johnson was one of those writers -- their bones litter the centuries -- who in seeking to expel one form of artifice from the novel end up putting another in its place: House Mother Normal, which attempts to track the thought processes of the inhabitants of an old people's home, is frankly tedious." - D.J.Taylor, The Spectator (16/10/1999)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       B.S.Johnson's geriatric comedy, House Mother Normal, presents a "Social Evening" in a nursing home. The reader can "see into the minds" of eight patients ("friends" as they are now referred to in what was apparently already a politically correct establishment), as well as that of the House Mother, following the same events through nine very different minds.
       Each patient is allotted twenty-one pages. A few pieces of vital information are given about each person at the beginning of their respective sections: their name, age, marital status, how well their sense function, how mobile they are, their ailments, and their CQ count (how many of the ten "classic questions" for senile dementia they can answer.
       The book progresses pretty much by age and health -- save the concluding House Mother. Sarah Lamson, first up, is only 74, fairly fit, and easily gets a CQ count of 10. Her narrative, and the next few, are fairly straightforward and easy to follow -- ramblings, but fairly coherent ones. Poor Ivy Nicholls -- third up -- is even reading a book that she finds quite boring: "What a load of rubbish ! No story about it", she complains; the lengthy quote from the text readily identifies it as one of Johnson's own works, Albert Angelo (see our review).
       Later patients are a bit more muddled, their language and expression less clear. All this allows for prose that breaks and floats all over the page, as well as pages that are left sadly blank, as Johnson tries to recreate what might be going on in these minds. Ninety-four year old Rosetta Stanton, barely sentient (a CQ count of 0), afflicted with "everything everyone else has" and more, barely has words at all form in her mind -- though ultimately, briefly, agonizingly they do.
       The final chapter is the House Mother's. A forty-two year old divorcée, with a mild case of the clap, she should, one expects, be the one to sort it all out, the clearest mind. Of course, she's not. Of course, she is practically the opposite.
       Technically accomplished, and often touching (as well as bitterly funny), House Mother Normal seems a worthy but not completely satisfying experiment. In this age, refocussed on an aging population and where everybody suddenly finds themselves -- or their aged relatives -- afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease (the apparently sexier alternative to good old senile dementia, which no one cares to admit to any longer), it may be of greater interest again. Writing about the mentally enfeebled is, however, much like writing about young children, and almost no writer seems to get it down right. Johnson offers an interesting idea of what's going on in those heads, but it still seems like a hazarded guess, and it is not written with the same conviction as, for example, his autobiographical works.

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House Mother Normal: Reviews: B. S. Johnson: Other books by B. S. Johnson under review: Books about B.S.Johnson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author B. S. (Bryan Stanley) Johnson (1933-73) studied at King's College, London. He wrote several highly acclaimed novels, as well as a play and poetry. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1967.

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