At the beginning of this week, I discussed the morality of Middlemarch, and how the results that Rohan Maitzen was somewhat uncomfortable with rest on the problem that Eliot’s morality is not based on dessert. Today, I’ve got a book about exactly the opposite problem.
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, a 1973 novel by British avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson, features a protagonist who applies the principles of accounting to everyday life. Not in the sense that he balances his checkbook every night, though; he’s balancing his moral accounts with the rest of the world. I should say that there are a lot of stylistic features of Christie Malry that I’m not going to write about, at least not right now, that are wonderful fun (and I have more Johnson sitting next to me as I type).
Christie’s “first reckoning” with the world gives a general idea of what he’s doing. In the debit column, he puts “aggravation[s],” like “unpleasantness of bank manager” (his boss), “restriction of movement due to Edwardian Office Block,” (referring to the fact that he had to walk around rather than through a particular building), and “bulb importuning” (referring to a flower bulb sales flier). Christie assigns monetary values to all these debits—values which are, as they must be, arbitrary, though they seem to have at least some relation to each other. Bulb importuning costs a lot less than his office supervisor’s lack of sympathy about the death of Christie’s mother. But they don’t seem to be related to any external scale.
Meanwhile, the credit column consists of “recompense” for these debits, some of which are actions by others (“small kindnesses from Joan”), but most of which are Christie taking action on his own in an attempt to balance the accounts: he scratches the facade of the office block, refuses to pay his undertaker’s bill, and sends the reply-paid envelope back to the flower bulb company empty. These actions also receive largely arbitrary monetary values, and Christie balances the accounts. But at each reckoning, Christie is owed more and more.
Why would Christie do such strange things? Christie’s motives “are of no importance to use, though the usual clues will certainly be given,” he warns after the first reckoning.
We are concerned with his actions. A man may be defined through his actions, you will remember. We may guess at his motives, of course; he may do so as well. We may also guess at the winner of the three-fifteen at the next meeting at Market Rasen.
The narrator goes on to explore Christie’s childhood and adolescence, explicitly noting that he is creating the character as he goes and that these things will not help the reader understand why Christie had and implemented his “Great Idea,” nor should they be used to judge the use of that idea.
Oh, I could go on and on for pages and pages about Christie’s young life, inventing and observing, remembering and borrowing. But why? All is chaos and unexplainable. These things happened. He is as he is, you are as you are. Act on that: all is chaos. The end is coming, truly. It is just so much wasted effort to attempt to understand anything. Lots of people never had a chance, are ground down, and other clichés. Far from kicking against the pricks, they love their condition and vote conservative.*
So if we should judge Christie based on his actions, on just how he does kick against the pricks, we can look at a few things: the very fact of his reckoning, the way he conducts it, and the actions he takes in life outside of the reckoning. For one thing, he has a girlfriend, and nothing between Christie and his girlfriend is reckoned (nor anything between Christie and his mother, who dies early on). Just as his mother still figures into the reckoning through the actions of other people (e.g., the supervisor’s lack of sympathy), so can his girlfriend, the Shrike. But there is no Shrike vs. Christie reckoning.
The fact of his reckoning at all would put off Eliot and go clearly against the morality of Middlemarch; it also seems it would go equally against the Christian morality from which this is largely based. But revenge is not wrong under all moral systems, though the dangers of revenge are often illustrated exactly as they are here: when an imperfect human passes arbitrary, incorrect, or unfair judgment on someone or something else, and chooses for his revenge something that is thus arbitrary, incorrect, or unfair. Christie wants to take an eye for an eye, but since he can’t, he resorts to imagining equivalent harms for all the harms against him, harming innocents in the process. Christie is reckoning against the world-at-large, against organizations and groups, not against the specific individuals who have harmed him even when they can be identified. And many times they can’t.
Of course, since this is a novel, just like Middlemarch, there is an ultimate reckoner: the author. Eliot, perhaps, uses a mini-miracle to evade the worst outcomes of her moral system, but in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, the narrator pretty blatantly steps in to balance accounts in his own way, putting the world even with Christie in the end—perhaps, at least.
*I am unable to reproduce the actual look of this paragraph on the page; Johnson uses white space extensively here.