INTERVIEW by Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 95

Chris Meredith

Christopher Meredith’s superb, fourth new novel, The Book of Idiots, will be published by Seren on 3 April and is previewed in the spring issue of New Welsh Review, out now. Last summer his poetry pamphlet, Black Mountains, Poems and Images from the Bog-Mawnog Project, work in response to a fragile upland landscape, was published by Mulfran Press. In 2005, his translation of Melog, a Welsh-language novel by Mihangel Morgan came out, and in 2006, his poetry collection, The Meaning of Flight (Seren, 2005), was longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year. His second novel, Griffri (Seren, 1992) was shortlisted for the ACW Book of the Year prize and his debut novel, Shifts (Seren, 1988; Seren classics edition, 1997), acknowledged as a classic of post-industrial south Wales, won the WAC Fiction Prize in 1989. Chris Meredith was born in Tredegar, lives in Brecon and is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan.

NWR: Chris, first of all, congratulations. I am a huge fan of your work and of your new novel. You made your name in 1989 when your debut novel Shifts won the WAC Fiction Prize and was quickly recognised as a ‘classic of post-industrial south Wales’. The emphasis in Shifts on workplace and masculinity is also present in The Book of Idiots. Did you start your new novel with the idea of updating for our new century the ideas and economic pressures reflected in Shifts?

CM: Thanks. I can’t tell you how heartening that is. My new novel is not an updating in any conscious way to do with the turn of centuries. I’m suspicious of time-markers like centuries and decades. My third novel, Sidereal Time, is partly about that, about the tensions and complementarities between the concepts of ‘event’ and ‘process’ and how we perceive them, how we look for moments of significance that may or may not be there.

I suppose there’s a continuum of certain concerns and themes in my novels which seem to come back whether I want them to or not. But The Book of Idiots is more deliberately about men than is Shifts. For Shifts the nature of the workplace and to some extent the social setting meant that some of the focus could sort of naturally be on men, though perhaps the crucial viewpoint in the novel is in fact a woman’s, in the character of Judith. For The Book of Idiots I’ve been severe in the way I’ve imposed formal limitations on myself, partly in order to focus more deliberately on the men in the book.

All my previous novels, in some way or other, have been interested in work in quite specific and detailed ways, and my second novel, Griffri, you could say is interested in vocation. Partly, they meditate on work and its meaning, or meaninglessness, and how it connects the individual, often unwittingly, with the larger processes of politics and history. I had thought, with The Book of Idiots, that I’d come to the end of that, but, in different form, I now realise, it’s still there as an undertone. Part of the restraint of the piece is that we never quite find out exactly what Dean Lloyd, the narrator, does for a living though we see him in work quite a bit. There’s more behind this than I can explore here, but it’s partly to do with the way we see other people’s lives, and often how little we see, or want to. There’s also my feeling that the nature of work’s become less defined as much of it has got detached from extracting and making to the point where some work has become virtually content-free. The continual effort to measure performance, plan staffing, assess how we’re doing and so on actually replaces the work. So for some people having their job has become their job, and in some cases people make a career out of their career. I don’t think this is just cynicism; content-free work is here, and some people are working themselves into the ground doing it. Perhaps people are being killed in hospitals by this syndrome. Wil Daniel, from the novel, would say, ‘This is the land of lost content.’ But it’s a relatively minor thread in the novel.

NWR: The Book of Idiots reveals a treatment of your southeast Wales setting which at once combines the generic (car journeys, suburbs, offices, municipal buildings) and the specifics of geography, history and landscape (especially the landmarks seen on Wil and Dean’s hike and the latter’s airborne escapades). Explain how you approached settings in the novel.

CM: There are hardly any real placenames in the book. Perhaps the lack of specificity is of a piece with the way Dean’s work is undefined. I think I’ve jumbled, combined, and especially invented places for it. When I try to remember a long car or train journey I can generally recall the places along the way, but it’s often quite hard to get them in the right order. It’s a short step from that to repositioning places and reinventing a landscape. There’s that trick that filmmakers use when they cut to a reverse angle and it seems we’re in the same spot, but in fact we’re in a completely different real location. Prose fiction can do this reconfiguring more subtly and seamlessly. When I walk rather than drive I’m much more likely to remember the exactness with which places fit together. And Wil and Dean’s walk in the hills is much more literally based on real places (in the Black Mountains) than anything else in the book.

The generic spaces as you call them I think partly reflect the way things are. We do spend a lot of time in numb, transitional places – in waiting rooms, cars, public buildings of various kinds, or in public spaces that sometimes try to act as if they’re domestic, like cafes and pubs. But it is also part of the formal severity of the novel that there are almost no domestic interiors. In fact there’s only one, about three pages long, and that’s fairly cheerless, though, I hope, funny. I noticed that I’d done this only after I’d finished the first draft. It’s partly to do with the focus on conversations between men, and also on the notion that much of life goes on in the places we seldom pay attention to.

NWR: It is but a step from the generic to the banal. Wil rightly says that ‘misery happens in corners, next to coffee machines’; you started mapping routine lives in Shifts and continued doing so in Sidereal Time, your third novel. The Book of Idiots creates a symbiotic relationship between the lyrical and the ordinary (eg mortality seeping, along with the chlorine, into pensioner Jeff’s saggy trunks). Wil riffs in favour of the ‘smart brain’ (of ideas and plans) rather than the automatic pilot who helps us get our trunks on. Dean struggles rather towards a Zen approach: peace is attainable if we can remain, like Soot the dog, ‘extraordinarily observant of our environment.’ Did your decision to split the novel into two sections, Wil’s being dialogue driven and Dean’s epistolary, help you explore the battle between ‘smart brain’ v automatic pilot? Or was it motivated by other factors?

CM: Dean Lloyd is the narrator of the novel and the whole thing is addressed to an unspecified ‘you’. Dean’s walk and conversation with his friend Wil Daniel dominate the middle of the novel, and it’s mainly Wil who’s talking. The rest of the book is mostly Dean encountering other men, sometimes witnessing something about them, often talking with them. And there are moments when he’s alone. The whole moves back and forth in time between the ‘present’ and other points in Dean’s life.

So it’s a bit more complicated than being split into two sections. The form is bound up with ideas of consciousness and perception, but not quite, I’d say, in terms of the dichotomy you pick out. I suppose that the shape of the novel is related to its interest in the extent to which we pay attention to, are engaged with, the lives of other people and our own lives. Wil engages this head-on, perhaps because his illness and his encounter with Annette force him to it. For him the smart brain, he says, when engaged completely with the immediate experience before it, can apprehend it with extraordinary intensity. He craves it, as he craves another of his cigarettes, and perhaps is scared by it. He calls booze and smoking ‘lotus-eating’, but they could be a perverse displacement of a craving for direct, engaged sensation.

There’s a theme about games that links with this. The various games and playing in the book can be seen as formalised ways of focusing the engaged brain on intense moments of experience, in throwing a stone, or kicking a ball, or climbing a cliff. Some of them, too, like climbing or parachute-jumping, confront mortality in the moment of intense, lived apprehension. The apparently separate theme to do with drama, which Wil is mainly responsible for bringing in, links with this too. A drama, after all, is a play which formalises and enacts moments of significance. But there’s an ambiguity about whether many of these games are real engagement, or, like the cigarette, a kind of drug-replacement. The themes are synthesised, as well as the idea of historical locatedness, when Wil spends an intense moment with Annette in the ruin of a Roman amphitheatre – a type of theatre where games were played.

NWR: Each chapter elaborates a fall, whether from health, prowess or self-respect, and indeed physical ones emphasising the lift and flight prior to descent (Clive’s skimming-stone skills; Dean’s parachute jump and gliding). The marvellous cover image by Martin Barrett (‘We All Fall with Icarus’) captures your themes of hubris, collapse and the fall of the tower of Babel. I wonder whether there were rejected working titles (either your own or the publisher’s), and if so, did any include the words ‘fall’, ‘automatic pilot’ or ‘mid-life crisis’?

CM: ‘Mid-life crisis’ wouldn’t do, I’d say - the characters in critical moments range in age from their teens to their sixties. The first title I had was The Torturer’s Horse. It’s a quotation some readers will recognise and it almost became the final title. In an oblique way it was just right, but for various reasons in the end I abandoned it. It didn’t help that there’s already been a novel of that title, as well as quite a famous piece of music. Another we considered was Death Games, which, as other bits of this interview show fits very well, and it provided the title I put on the extract for NWR. But as the publisher pointed out, it sounds like a thriller of some sort. Yet another I was keen on was Who Killed Icarus? The question’s not just rhetorical, and I don’t think the Icarus story is merely about hubris. You could implicate just about anyone else in the myth in Ic’s death. But some people don’t like classical allusions (maybe I don’t myself) and it also made it sound like a detective story. Which could have been an advantage, come to think of it. So I was delighted to find Martin Barrett’s picture and that Simon Hicks at Seren found a way to use it for the cover. It chimes with the book in all sorts of ways.

NWR: Your novels reveal a sharp sense of humour that stays affectionate towards its characters. Since The Book of Idiots has a high body count and mortality for its subject, comic devices need to work (as I was laughing) hard throughout. Scatological jokes and toilet scenes are used to relieve readers (pardon!) of weightier considerations such as dramatic form (Wil tells us ‘catharsis’ is related to carthu - mucking out). There are also puns (‘articulate lorry driver’) and a headlining role for Jeff’s genitals in chapter 13: ‘The small pig’s face was a bit squashed against the two huge sacks, its snout puckered.’ And the ‘Death Game’, in which Dean guesses how famous people died, forms an extended blackly comic dramatic dialogue: ‘George Gershwin.’ ‘Piano fell on him.’ ‘Close. Brain tumour.’ ‘I can do Robert Maxwell.’ ‘And maybe somebody did.’ Was humour a help or a hindrance to you during the novel’s gestation? Which humorous writers (including Welsh ones) or performers do you admire? Are you interested in satire?

CM: I’m glad it made you laugh. The interesting thing is that the narrator is pretty po-faced much of the time, even pedantic. This is serious stuff, and the processes at work in the novel are remorseless, but humour isn’t stuck on just to vitiate that, I hope. I don’t think the comedy is an add-on, so it’s hard to consider whether it was a help or a hindrance. It was just there. In the death game, Wil rehearses (there’s a pun for you) those deaths because he can, because it’s in the nature of his encyclopaedic but chaotic memory, because he’s relaxed enough to think out loud so that his preoccupations, obliquely, come to the surface. He actually has something to say to Dean. Perhaps he’s avoiding saying it, but his mind orbits the topic as he speaks. Death, the reality of it, is on his mind.

I enjoy satire often but I don’t find it a very satisfactory form to work in. I did a short satirical piece for Planet years ago called ‘Do Redwoids Dream of Electric Sheep’. It was fun but limiting, and a short piece was enough. At the point where it starts to get interesting for me it generally starts to go beyond satire, which, like allegory, tends to have a one-to-one relationship with its source in some way.

Oddly, I can’t think of many ‘humorous’ writers I admire. Two of the best Welsh fiction writers of the twentieth century have a fine sense of black comedy. They are Glyn Jones in The Island of Apples and Dorothy Edwards (Rhapsody and Winter Sonata, the latter reissued last autumn by Honno). Jones’ novel is full of verbal brilliance and anarchic observation that’s funny and cumulatively disturbing. Edwards’ comedy is pitch-black, born of an essentially dark world-view, a brilliant restraint in technique, and a terrifying emotional honesty.

NWR: To turn to comedy as a dramatic form, do you consider The Book of Idiots a comedy or a tragedy and do we need know that in order to interpret the denouement? Is Wil the protagonist because he talks most and tells jokes, while Dean is only the chorus? Is it coincidence that a woman talks like a goat at one of Wil’s last hospital visits and that ‘tragedy’ means ‘he-goat-song’ in ancient Greek? You are obviously interested in dramatic form and Wil’s scenes show you to be a master of revealing wholly credible characters through dialogue. Sheenagh Pugh in her recent interview asked you something similar, but don’t you think you might make rather a good dramatist?

CM: I knew that ‘goat-song’ etymology but I never thought of it as ‘he-goat’, and I have to say it wasn’t in my mind when I wrote the scene. In that scene, the mentally disabled woman’s speech, which could have been pitiable or cruelly comic, actually terrifies Wil with its alien-ness, but his own horror becomes comic as he recounts it to Dean. This is one of the effects of having the story filtered through two narrators, and especially from one man to another, making a kind of middle-distance imposed in the first place by the victim, Wil, so that simultaneous layers of conflicting effects can work.

I suppose that from Wil’s point of view, Dean has a kind of choric function, but then he has for most of the other male characters in the book at some time or another. I’m not sure who the protagonist is, and as Wil might say, that’s a term from art, not from life.

The novel can be powerful at resisting and playing with categories. Henry Fielding called one of his novels ‘a comic epic poem in prose’. Because the encapsulation itself is a kind of joke, it’s tempting to boil that down to ‘comic’. And because comedy, the great anarchist, climbs out of any box you try to put it in, comedy is the lazy person’s category for anything odd. But that’s wrong. The complexity and tension of the forces in this piece, I hope, hold it in the air. If a comedy is a play where the main characters get married at the end, this definitely isn’t a comedy, but as with working out who’s the protagonist I’d prefer to shut up about that.

A long time ago I wrote a bad play but learned a lot from the effort, and I wrote a short two-hander in the 80s which got a couple of performances in the Sherman Arena. But I’ve never seriously wanted to write a big play, not so far anyway, and I admire playwrights tremendously. The Book of Idiots is a novel with a great deal of dialogue that argues almost constantly with the idea of dramatic unity – perhaps that means it would make a good script. But I wanted to do it for the inner ear, so to speak, to suggest lived lives with a technique that was both laconic and felt, and to do with just the marks on the page, and nothing else.

NWR: Can you talk about themes of history, nationhood and language in the novel? Among repeated symbols of bottlenecks and pinchpoints, one is compared to the Battle of Thermopylae, in which the vastly outnumbered Spartans held off the Persians for seven days before defeat. May there be a political message here?

CM: Perhaps not a message, but politics are everywhere.

There’s also the imagery of lines, purpose, of people attempting to control the course of things, and of how difficult that is. Wil talks about the straight line of tragic form with no sub-plots that his life seems to refuse to obey. Dean talks about bridges laying one stream of stories across another. Down the funnels of roads and paths different stories pass one another, and occasionally collide. Wil’s casual reference to Thermopylae is unwittingly ironic and oxymoronic – he’s looking for a place to force an encounter and calls it a Thermopylae for old lovers. Of course, ‘Thermopylae’ means ‘the hot gates’ and it was a place of slaughter; several times elsewhere he talks of the relationship in terms of immolation.

I’ve already touched on some of the history stuff. I think the book reflects a little of where we are in Wales nowadays, but I hope it’s understated. It’s there because it’s there and I’ll let others pore over it.

NWR: What is your next writing project?

CM: Most immediately, poems. I’m hoping there’ll be a new collection next year. A bit further off there may be another novel, but, but, but. Further off still, there’s a non-fiction book I’d like to write. Don’t know if I’ll get there.

Chris Meredith was interviewed by NWR's editor, Gwen Davies.


previous interview: Jane Yeh
next interview: Jim Perrin


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