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07 April 2012 @ 05:43 pm
Review of "The Book of Idiots" by Christopher Meredith  
Stupid deaths, stupid deaths,
Hope next time it's not you.

The above is of course the jingle of Death, in his slot in Horrible Histories exploring gruesome and unlikely ends. I don't suppose this was in Meredith's mind when he chose his title, but it occurs to me whenever Wil Daniel is exercising his pub quiz talent for citing examples of the same. Nor are the only examples historical, like Aeschylus (brained by a falling tortoise) and Henry 1 (surfeit of lampreys). In the course of the novel, a man falls unaccountably from a bridge; another drowns because his friends don't know the one thing about him that would tell them he was in trouble, while a third troubles the coroner as a result of a bizarre shooting. Not to mention Wil himself, constantly rolling cigarettes while dying of lung cancer, as stupid a death as one could well imagine.

This novel is full of trajectories (balls, arrows, stones), which may be launched by humans but are then often unpredictable and out of their control, and journeys which frequently don't go where they meant to either. There is more than a hint, indeed, that the only sure end of all these journeys is death, and that, this being so, it is the time spent in motion, rather than the end of it, that matters.

The repeated image of trajectories reflects in the novel's structure, which consists of separate though interwoven reminiscences by the narrator, Dean Lloyd. Some of these stones skim further than others, but the dominant thread is a long, rambling tale told to him at a pub by his friend Wil who, on his trips to outpatients, has met a woman, there for the same reason, whom he once knew intimately but had long lost touch with. The affair he starts with her may be partly fuelled by his own approaching death, but also seems to owe something to the "Friends Reunited effect" whereby the middle-aged, uneasy that they have not made as much of life as they might, begin to wonder where other choices would have led them and can't resist trying to find out. (At least three married people in the novel are playing away in this manner, and Dean may be another, depending on the identity of the unnamed "you" he sometimes addresses.) One of the book's most poignant moments is when Wil and Annette, so long apart, update each other on their lives:
"Not that we said much. Basically we had nothing interesting to report to each other about the last twenty-five years."

The sense of shared mortality between Wil and Annette creates a sombre, powerful charge to equal that between the lovers of Chekhov's "Lady with a Lapdog", though expressed in Wil's wry, ruefully flippant vernacular:
"She was worried these two old bags would overhear us. I was worried that if we touched hands we'd earth a lightning bolt and burn the tearoom and the trinket shop and the prints of quaint streets to carbonised sticks and we'd be sitting there with just the whites of our eyes showing like a bit from a Roadrunner cartoon."

For all this power, it is never entirely clear how far Wil is embroidering the experience; there is a moment late on when he and Annette's husband meet, and we suddenly see how Wil looks to a stranger (more than slightly obsessive and unhinged). Nor is he the only unaware/unreliable narrator. Dean, having described in some detail a day of job interviews at his workplace, later realises he had misread much of what he saw. There is much, particularly about his friends, that he does not know, in which he resembles the eponymous poet-narrator of Meredith's earlier novel Griffri, trudging through the murky byways of mediaeval Welsh power-politics without ever realising what is really going on.

It seems in fact that we are all fated to go on journeys that end only where we don't want to go, and with a faulty satnav. As Wil says, "either there is no god, or if he is there he's a very rum bugger indeed." If this sounds a bleak message, it is not delivered without considerable humour. Both Dean and Wil have a nice line in wit, Dean more sardonic and observational, as with the job candidate: "I sensed her mechanically choosing moments to spray us with eye contact"; Wil more inventive and freewheeling, witness his views on Aristotle:

"He also thought that when bears were born they were just formless blobs of goo […] and then their mother licked 'em into shape. Literally. Licked 'em into shape. Fucking nutter. He also had a theory of tragedy. He was on firmer ground there. All he had to do was go to the theatre. […] They must have said to him in the stalls, Hey Ari, shoudn' you be in the woods with the bears? No boys, I'm working on a new book. I'm a theatre critic now".

Both are interesting company, which in a slow-burning book matters. It is daring of Meredith to have his heroes, in effect, stuck in a pub reminiscing for so long, but it works. This is a book with a sombre theme, suffused with melancholy, but also shot through with wit, linguistic inventiveness and sharp observation.