Review: Please is full of delightful ruminations about language and etymology
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.
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.’
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.
Please is published by Seren and can be purchased here.