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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

The Book of Idiots
by Christopher Meredith

Reviewed by Walter Cummins

Seren Books
(March 2012)

Cover of The Book of Idiots, by Christopher Meredith

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The title of Welsh writer Christopher Meredith’s fourth novel, The Book of Idiots, may remind some of the various instructional guides for mastering everything from chess to beekeeping. In this case, the characters demonstrate how to make a hash out of your life. They are idiots in the sense that we all are. To paraphrase Flaubert, “Un idiot, c’est moi.” Or Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “I have met the idiots and it is us.” Meredith’s characters—Clive, Wil, Matt, Jeff, and others, as well as the narrator, Dean Lloyd—all do idiotic things and cringe at their follies. When Matt calls Dean clever, Dean responds, “Just differently idiotic.”

It’s also a novel about dying. In the opening chapter Dean recalls a kids’ game called Best Man’s Fall. The one designated On It has an imaginary gun to shoot and kill all the others. The point was, having been shot, performing an act of aesthetic, artistic, athletic, and authentic dying. The one chosen the best became the next On It. But none of the kids considered that a reward. Much more important was the chance to demonstrate the art of dying. Several of the adults, no longer playing a game, do die in the following chapters, but while authentically dead, haven’t made their demise a work of art. First, you idiotically fail at living, and then you die.

While one reviewer in the UK calls the novel a “hilarious black comedy,” I found it much more sad than funny. While the characters often make fools of themselves, to laugh at them requires a distancing. Here, although Dean seems to maintain a removal from some of the people he tells about, for example, avoiding a post-swim beer with Jeff, even in his reticence he reveals a compassionate connection. As noted, he is aware that he is just a different kind of idiot.

In fact, the novel does not disclose much about Dean’s circumstances. He has an unspecified tedious job in a mundane office. He meets others, especially his friend Wil, and listens to their stories, though saying almost nothing about himself to them. He seems to want to avoid complications, in one case doing a U-turn when a serious accident happens ahead of him on a crowded highway, in another leaving a seriously injured man once he is assured an ambulance is on its way. Dean does have an unnamed wife and family and goes to Crete on vacation. But at points throughout the telling of the novel it’s revealed that he is speaking to a “you” whom he is eager to meet and who has been in his car with him. By all implications, this you is a lover, but not identified as explicitly as those of other men in the novel. Marriages are inadequate. They do not make people happy, but neither do affairs.

Several stories run through the novel, mainly that of Wil, less so those of Matt, Clive, and Jeff. Chapters about them alternate with the facts of Dean’s work and drives, accumulating details as they fill in and surprise. By far the most compelling is Wil’s tale of accidentally meeting a lover from his youth in a hospital waiting room and the drama of what happens next; it runs though much of the novel, building a suspenseful tension.

Acutely aware of life’s messiness and human inadequacies, Dean yearns for a perfection that would achieve the vanishing of self. He reveals it when telling of his never-realized goal in a swimming pool: “But the aim is to smooth that [lengths of the pool] out and make it one unfaltering line at one speed.... The result should be a kind of emptiness if you were ever to achieve the perfect line. You’d collapse into the line of your own movement and become a point.” On the final page of the novel, above the earth in a glider and not sure where he is, Dean is told by Peter, the plane’s pilot, “Hardest thing in the world.... Flying in a straight line.” Much easier to act like an idiot.

For all his struggles with being, Dean observes with great precision, which is, of course, a reflection of Meredith’s ability with description and rendering of complexities, such as the unfaltering line. An author of four poetry collections, he is also a master of dialogue, capturing distinctive speech patterns that reveal the essence of the people behind them.

The Book of Idiots impresses at many levels—structure, language, characterization, and insights. Unfortunately, released by Seren Books, an imprint of Poetry Wales, it does not yet have an American publisher. Fortunately, the novel is available though and deserves the widest possible readership.


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Walter Cummins

is the co-publisher of Serving House Books and a faculty member in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. His most recent short story collection, The Lost Ones, was published in 2012.

Cummins has published more than 100 stories in such magazines as Kansas Quarterly, Other Voices, Crosscurrents, Florida Review, South Carolina Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Arabesques, and Confrontation, and on the Internet. He also has published memoirs, essays, articles, and reviews.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury