In many ways, Harry Matthews “The Journalist” is a remarkable achievement. Having said that, I suspect three-quarters of people who start to read the book may not make it all the way through to the end…
“The Journalist” is not about someone who writes for newspapers or appears on television, but rather a man who writes a journal: a journal-ist, if you will. In his journal he is attempting to create as accurate as possible representation of his reality and the life he leads. The irony in his quest is that, as he becomes ever more obsessed with his journal and its voracity, the document becomes subversive – becomes his reality – and the actual life he is living and trying to depict takes second place.
The book is a remarkable exploration of obsession and the descent into madness; Matthews manages to convey the journalist’s slide away from reality quite superbly. You actually want to put your hands into the book and give him a shake, tell him to pull himself together. Interestingly the reader gets a better insight into the journalist’s everyday life than he has himself – and not necessarily because of what he is writing, but because of what he is missing, the life that’s passing him by.
One way in which this is manifest is in the journalist’s focus on categorising what he writes. He starts with a simple ‘A’ or ‘B’ breakdown, and adds in the margin to which each element of each entry corresponds. We go along with him for a while. But ‘A’ or ‘B’ is insufficient; soon it’s A1 or A2, B1 or B2. And then this isn’t enough. A2/b.i anybody? As this indexing becomes ever more important for him – and the margin even more cluttered – so it becomes less important for the reader; you give up on it. His focus is increasingly on the categorisation, yours increasingly on the life he is living. A really clever way of demonstrating his breakdown, defining your relationship with him, detaching the reader so that you can see his disintegration.
I drafted the above whilst I still had about fifty pages of the book to read, and – in true “The Journalist” style – I do not intend to retract any of it. However…
…the ending disappointed me for two reasons. The first is that Matthews uses the hospitalisation of the journalist as an opportunity for all the other characters to come and explain to him – and hence to us – everything that had actually been going on ‘in reality’ and which the journalist had been misconstruing, misunderstanding and confusing as a result of the breakdown he was going through. It felt a bit like the end of an Agatha Christie where Poirot gets all the suspects in a room and tells them exactly what happened.
The second reason I disliked the ending was because it was upbeat, positive; the writing itself – which, as a depiction of the journal, had in many ways been disintegrating, becomes suddenly much more fluent and lyrical. I have no problem with that per se – and Matthews can obviously write! – but it felt out-of-kilter with was the book was actually about. With what it was achieving.
The pinnacle of that is, perhaps, the journalist’s realisation that the ultimate goal for the journal is for it to be about itself. His “J of J”. That is the notion which effectively eliminates reality and the relevance of the mundane, everything subservient to the journal – and the writing of the journal can be the only worthwhile subject. For me that’s the natural climax.
I would much rather have had a downbeat, doom-prescient finale arising from this ultimate realisation. Having led his protagonist to the edge, surely the right thing to do would have been for Matthews to have nudged him over it…