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Please

Christopher Meredith
ISBN-13: 
9781781726167
Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 8, 2021
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£9.99

“Meredith at his darkest and funniest. This is the work of a master.” – Tom Bullough

“The most wry, witty and wicked novel I expect to read this year.” – Sheenagh Pugh

'It's a virtuoso performance that lingers for a long time in the memory.' – The Western Mail

​'Please is a work of genius, a tragi-comic masterpiece.'  – Jeremy Hooker

'Punctuation killed my wife.’ So opens Christopher Meredith’s novel, Please.

Octogenarian Vernon, who’s never written anything longer than a memo, tries to write the story of his apparently unremarkable courtship and marriage from the 1960s to today. How should he do it? His lifelong obsessions are language and reading; most of what he knows about the world comes from dictionaries and reference books, and from these and the language of old novels he concocts and wrestles with his ‘voice’. From beneath Vernon’s comically elegant struggles and games with language a picture emerges of a man and woman across half a century, of how passion, infidelities, murderous fantasy and obsessions can be undercurrents even in the most ordinary of lives.

Please is a love story about the impossibility of being in love and the impossibility of telling stories. Sophisticated and controlled, it explores how hard it is to know yourself or others, how language has the power to conceal even as it reveals. How much can we know? How much can we say?

Meredith’s fifth novel, full of humanity, sly humour and verbal invention, is his shortest and arguably his funniest, most innovative and most outrageous. It’s a tragicomedy touching on themes of the limits of knowledge, on isolation, and male frailty in new and playful ways. The whole gradually and inexorably unlocks the meanings of its extraordinary opening sentence in a complex and dazzling psychological and linguistic entertainment that ends in a surprising, dreamlike and ultimately moving denouement.

 

“Not so much a tense novel as a novel about tenses, Please presents Vernon Jones, a self-taught grammarian and language enthusiast as he tries to unscramble life’s fiendish crossword.  It’s full of paronomasia, therefore, and all kinds of lexicon-besotted word punning, as befits a real-life poet’s fifth adventure into the novel. Vernon is a lovely creation, a man living in the shadow of his failure in school exams, doomed to work in human resources and madly in love with his palindrome of a wife, Hannah.

Every one of Meredith’s novels has been utterly unlike any of the others and this one shows that one-man tradition to be very much alive.  Tender and playful, linguistically inventive and probingly punctuated, this is a book of great heart and insight about new shoes, cuckoldry, Saycian fate and the quiddities of old age.  ‘Please’ has many meanings but in the case of this fine novel it means ‘to cause to feel happy and satisfied.’ Indubitably so, as Vernon himself might have put it.” – Jon Gower

 

Please is published simultaneously with Meredith's new poetry collection Still. Buy them both at the discounted price of £15.00 here

REVIEWS

Review by Caroline Clark, Gwales

Monday, May 17, 2021

This is the fifth novel from the versatile poet, translator and storyteller Christopher Meredith. It follows his acclaimed short-story collection, Brief Lives, and was published simultaneously with his poetry collection, Still. It is a tour-de-force of wit and the relish for language but still reveals the whole of an anguished life. It is parodic, dark and surprisingly touching, especially in the final chapters.

Vernon, the author/narrator (who constantly struggles with the difference he feels between telling and writing), is a man obsessed with and fascinated by language, its etymology and its grammar/glamour. This leads him into endless digressions on his own choice of words to tell his story, but the digressions often reveal more than he anticipated.

Vernon, his wife Hannah and the other significant characters are all south Walian. Vernon’s written style gives no indication of this except where he quotes dialogue, and this is indicative of how much ‘Vernon the writer’ is a careful construct. Although the few words of Hannah are quoted and endlessly analysed, it is her pauses and her silence which characterise her, in contrast to Vernon’s addiction to words and – in a crucial scene – his logorrhoea.

This is a story of love, passion, loss of love and – in a delicate examination of the word ‘care’ – perhaps its final return. Even for an autobiography, the writer is unusually self-centred. Few of the other characters are fully named (Vernon’s twin children are totally anonymous!), although Mr Crockett inspires Vernon to an exploration of ecclesiastic architectural terms. It is only through a conversation in the final section (and in his native register) that Vernon seems to gain an awareness of the reality of the lives of others. He muses at length on Hannah’s state of mind, but either her brevity or his loquacity prevents him from really understanding her. The abiding impression of and for Vernon is that of isolation.

Vernon is at once comic and tragic, both consciously and unconsciously, and the subtlety of Meredith’s writing is a delight. Vernon’s professional life as a clerk in Personnel or Human Resources departments results in some of the most conscious comedy but, at the same time, he is aware that he is an agent of those who are ‘downsizing’ industries, destroying many careers and even lives. This process was the focus of Meredith’s first novel, Shifts, set in his native Tredegar in the late 1970s and drawing on his own early experience as a steelworker. That knowledge is a shadow behind Vernon’s ironic, rueful success as an executioner.

The poet’s love of language and all its shades of meaning is both evident and parodied in this work. It is a story which is both told and concealed, with humour, pathos and an understanding of how lives are made and unmade by chance.

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Books Council of Wales.

Review by Joshua Rees, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Please is an elegant, funny, and moving novel about love and loss. Our pedantic, pleonastic protagonist, Vernon, is an octogenarian coming to terms with the death of his wife. The novel opens memorably with a typically droll, Vernon-like assertion: “Punctuation killed my wife.”

Following his bereavement, Vernon seeks solace in the other love of his life: language. Having never before committed his thoughts to paper, he decides to trace and evaluate the course of his relationship with his wife, from their initial meet-cute in a shoe shop in the 1960s, to the tempestuous middle-years of their marriage and its eventual sad end. Vernon is complicated, flawed, but not wholly unlikeable company.

What emerges is a story about a man who has hidden behind words for most of his life, and how he learns that not even words can keep the world at bay forever. Please could perhaps be best compared to the work of another writer known for their deft linguistic playfulness and invention, Eley Williams.

Review by Jon Gower, Nation Cymru

Saturday, April 17, 2021

There must be a literary term for a poet who can deftly turn his hand to prose and if there’s anyone who would know what that is it’s the hero of poet Christopher Meredith’s fifth novel, Please.  Vernon Jones, now in his eighties, has lived a life hopelessly obsessed with language and all its apparatus, not least the joys of punctuation, which is, for him an uncommonly thrilling subject that can make an old heart race.

The devouring of dictionaries and reference books has helped him deal with his humdrum job in human resources. A bit like David Nobbs’ comic creation Reginald Perrin –  who escapes his humdrum job at Sunrise Desserts by swimming into the sea – Vernon escapes his labours by regarding them as ‘a kind of highly specialised deep-sea diving in the kelp forests and oceanic trenches of the submerged part of other people’s lives.’

He’s even married to a palindrome, Hannah and he’s never been backward in coming forward about his love for her which has lasted over five decades, pretty much ever since he first clapped eyes on her.

New shoes

But, and it’s a big but, as the novel’s intriguing opening sentence puts it ‘Punctuation killed my wife.’  In that sense you can read Please as a hyper-literary murder mystery but it works just as well as an engaging and comic account of the vagaries of marriage, the joys of buying new shoes and the extravagant compendiousness of dictionaries.

As you’d expect the book is full of delightful ruminations about language and etymology, not least when Vernon explores the roots of his own name.  He finds, to his ineffable delight, that they reach down to Celtic origins, relating to Welsh, y wernen, the alder, which is a ‘most beautiful and lively tree whose wagging leaves are rounded like tongues and which loves, as I do, watery places…’

Vernon failed his school exams and so he’s spent much of his adult life making up for that, building up a lavish lexicon with which to explain the world, to describe, for instance, his own craquelured face or berate the career hungry “vocatiopaths” he encounters at work. But it’s punctuation that really gives him satisfaction and:

‘If it is subtler, less overtly defined, more fugitive and more various than the ugly apparatus of mechanical tadpoles, stops, crook-fingered quotation marks, swung-dash snakes, solidi and other finicky paraphernalia that I am forced to as I write this, then so much the better.’

Drudgery

Vernon is rescued from mundanity and drudgery by this alternative life as grammarian and language enthusiast but sadly his tendency to display his logorrhoea in office memos, which grow to become bloated and unreadable screeds, gets him into trouble and facing a rollicking in the boss’s office to boot.

But this is as nothing to the shame he endures when he is cuckolded and, what is worse, comes home early to find his wife in flagrante delicto up against a bedroom cabinet with a hirsute stranger.  This is the point at which life’s crossword puzzle makes him want to burn the entire bloody newspaper and part of the novel is thus an account of how steadfast love can become a smouldering and eventually murderous rage.

Please is published in the same breath as Meredith’s latest volume of poetry, Still, a deeply resonant and intense series of meditation on memory, place, photography, nature and painting. Taken together these volumes confirm that here is a writer of great range and integrity, spanning prose and poetry in an assured way which pretty much demands a reviewer should use a sparkling word for bridging between the two.

In the absence of anything else springing to mind one is tempted to neologise, as would, of course Vernon Jones himself and suggest it is the art of simply being Meredithian.

Review by Sheenagh Pugh

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

‘The one about the past being another country. Not that I believe it for a second. It’s not even another tense nowadays.’

Our narrator Vernon Jones, an autodidact who worked as a clerk and is now retired and reflecting on his past, is unusually fascinated by everything about words: their etymology, syntax, punctuation, ambiguities. He is aware that his interest borders on obsession, and he has a dry wit that enlivens his every utterance. I shall probably never again think of a telephone box except by the noun he uses to describe it here:

“She rang me at work. We did not have a telephone at home; almost no one of my acquaintance did at that date. She rang from a quaint gazebo, now almost extinct, called a telephone box.”

I may also try to use fewer ellipses, or, as he calls them, “those wretched trails of sheep droppings”.

Vernon is, as one might expect in such a narrator, also very aware of the narrative techniques he is using, and draws our attention to them in a playful homage to Tristram Shandy. “To return to that gentleman whom we left hesitating some hundreds of words ago” echoes Sterne’s way of returning contritely to characters he has left halfway up a staircase for several chapters, and Vernon also has his habit of warning us not to read inattentively:

“And finally, I drew your attention directly and unambiguously to the potential for evasion and ambiguities in adoption of the present tense even as I so adopted it!”

It will be clear by now both that this is a very funny book (at least, I find it so, for me it is one of those I might hesitate to read on a train for fear of constant audible merriment) and that it has a lot to do with time and with how we interpret and fictionalise reality. Its concerns are at bottom serious and its humour often quite dark: “Little Robin was given my name and was thus saved from a lifetime of being Robin Finch, an unfortunate double birdie that his parents had not spotted” was one place where I laughed out loud, but it describes the name-change of a child whose parents have split up. It should also be clear that the narrative techniques allow of “evasion and ambiguities” which result in reveals, some sudden, some more gradual, which is why I shall say little about plot, except that this feature reminded me of earlier novels of Meredith’s in which character-narrators like Dean of The Book of Idiots and the eponymous Griffri realise toward the end of their narrative that what they thought they knew about their lives was in many ways mistaken. It culminates, as did Griffri, with a powerfully moving and enlightening encounter between two people, and throughout the novel the tone darkens, with Vernon having to apply his observational gifts to more sober themes than etymology:

“I had an agéd colleague once who gave up fishing on retirement, even though he had planned to angle his way through his last years, because he found he could no longer bring himself to kill the silver darlings in his hands. So the old are often more likely to be moved and lachrymose than those of middle years. We who are nearer the end better grasp the nature of suffering and the suffering of nature, and the dreadful fragility of both the somatic and the psychic.”

Even here, though, he enjoys balancing clauses and indulging his love for archaisms and recondite words. 

I compiled a page full of quotes while reading through this novel, with a view to using them in a review, and I still have half of them unused. It’s that sort of novel. I can’t resist one more: Vernon at his obsessed, self-aware and solipsistic best. When the author emailed me the text, he introduced his protagonist with “Meet the appalling Vernon”. Well, I did, and found him a delight.

“As my name is Vernon – a fact which I have already artfully fed to you in the speech of my old friend Mick Sayce (see above) – I have from childhood had an interest in the occurrence of this relatively rare letter. It is modest in its specialness, having none of the bravura (ha!) hyper-scarcity of, say, x. Its nearest rival (ha! again) among alleged consonants is, arguably, the letter q, but v has none of q’s sickly dependence upon its almost inseparable partner u. Moreover v has a seductively shifting and mercurial personality. Indeed, in certain circumstances v and u slip identities, as demonstrated in the delightful Germanic tendency to pronounce the word quite as kvite. In modern Welsh the letter v does not exist. (Neither, technically, does the letter j. As a Welshman called Vernon Jones I should feel some anxiety at the way in which my names enact a partial cultural vanishing, but I am too old for that.)”

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