Gareth Smith reviews Christopher Meredith’s latest novel, Please, the fictional memoir of a language enthusiast.
In most novels, language is a means to an end. Syntax, grammar and punctuation work invisibly to guide us through the narrative and are subservient to the dictates of the plot. Please reverses this process with considerable relish, forcing form onto the stage alongside content, and in doing so makes language an active, conspicuous and even fatal force within its convoluted narrative. In Christopher Meredith’s inventive and witty fifth novel, words do not simply exist on the page but are poked and prodded in an extended and kaleidoscopic interrogation of their purpose and function.
The novel’s appeal derives primarily from its garrulous narrator, a fascinating and intolerable creation whose grammatical idiosyncrasies shape his entire life. Vernon’s philological pomposity is equalled only by, and is dependent upon, his absurd verbosity. To provide a distinctly lowbrow reference that he would no doubt abhor, Vernon’s prose resembles that episode of Friends where Joey produces ridiculously complicated sentences by overusing an online thesaurus. The influence of verbiage on his life is traced through a narrative drenched in puns, volunteered etymologies and syntactic tangents. Whether he’s expounding on the merits of the letter ‘v’ or discussing the history of his own name, an addiction to articulation drives the story.
This allows the form and content of Please to intertwine; the morphology of the text informs the events that it describes. Vernon’s loquacity produces some beautiful and striking description — such as a topographical description of a brain scan — but, most of the time, it is a means of probing the ways that language eludes, rather than fixes, precise meaning. This lends the text a meta-fictional vein, with both reader and Vernon analysing the narrative as it is being written. Despite claiming to be relatively uninterested in literature, Vernon is in fact performing a close reading of his own life. This is not to say that Please is a dry or needlessly abstract; Vernon’s narrative is cleverly constructed and precisely assembled, and his linguistic fixations enhance, rather than hinder, the elucidations of the plot.
His aspirations for verbal mastery are, however, doomed to failure, and this provides the tragicomic kernel of the entire text. Words are impossible to control, producing meanings far beyond their original definitions, and punctuation twists perspective, forcing sentences into rhythms that reshape their meaning. The title is an example of this: a mundane and underwhelming word which, in the right context (or with the right punctuation) can signify demand, desire or desperation.
There are only two (minor) weaknesses in Please. The first is that Vernon’s position as a character with a ‘regional’ Welsh accent is relatively underplayed, which is a shame in a text that so effectively explores the relationship between the written and spoken word. It would have been illuminating to hear Vernon elaborate a little further on how the pronunciation of words often dictate their weight and value. The second is its brevity. It is almost impossible to believe such a long-winded author would produce this short grammatical memoir. Although, as the end of the story hints, sometimes it is the moments where we choose not to speak that define our lives. Perhaps, in the midst of this dense word soup, this is what Vernon and Meredith have been trying to say (or write) all along.
Gareth Smith is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.