BLOG Gwen Davies

13/02/2012

Chris Meredith’s new masterpiece The Book of Idiots

Christopher Meredith's last novel for adults was published in 1998, so his fanclub's been a long time waiting. We will be rewarded on 3 April, the publishers assure me, when Seren bring out his new novel, The Book of Idiots, which is previewed in the spring issue of New Welsh Review.

Meredith made his name in 1989 when Shifts, his debut that became a classic of post-industrial south Wales, drawing on his time working in a steel plant, won the WAC Fiction Prize. The hallmarks (humour, work, male protagonists, superlative dialogue, history, politics and precision of place) that made Shifts such a success are also present in The Book of Idiots. In social terms, it marks Wales' move towards the service industry but continues to commemorate the contribution of older men struggling to value themselves in a workplace that no longer makes things. Its southeast Wales setting is full of bridges, borders and bulwarks at once historically symbolic and geographically specific, and half of the action takes place around a walk to Carreg y Dial (Revenge Stone), monument for a Welsh-Norman assassination ('Somebody ap Somebody killed Somebody Fitz Somebody.') This is a globalised economy, however, and so most other settings are car journeys and generic offices or municipal buildings (after all, 'misery happens quietly... next to coffee machines').

You will sail through this hilarious black comedy at one sitting. My favourite scenes include Jeff's dissolving trunks and Graham deciding to quit after getting locked into the work bog, but nothing tops Wil's extended guessing game of famous people's deaths: 'George Girshwin.' 'Piano fell on him.' 'Close. Brain tumour.' 'I can do Robert Maxwell.' 'And maybe somebody did.' But before, like Chrysippus the Stoic, you die laughing, consider the theme: middle-aged men acting like idiots, having affairs then dying (methods various); also nationhood (declining) and language (ditto). Each chapter beautifully, seamlessly, elaborates a fall, whether from health, prowess or self-respect, and indeed physical ones which celebrate the lift and flight prior to descent, such as children's games with skimming stones and paper planes or adult ones of parachute jumps and gliding. In life as in the game Best Man's Fall, it's all about 'how artistically we [fall] to our last end, and how authentically dead we [are] on the field.'

This is a novel about the seriousness of play, about hubris, friendship and sanity against the odds. It is also a literary masterpiece about narrative technique that plays with its own forms (tragedy, farce, romance). It is a thriller in which we guess who survives rather than who will die next. And it is a letter to a lover whose identity and fate the author wants us to have fun guessing (while we may).

Chris Meredith's other two novels for adults are: Sidereal Time and Griffri. You can read New Welsh Review's world exclusive interview with Chris about The Book of Idiots on our Interviews page.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 11 February 2012.

       


previous blog: 26 Treasures
next blog: Dorothy Edwards, aesthete or ‘socialist Welsh spy’?



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