Christopher Meredith’s new collection of short stories opens with two men far out at sea, each staring up at the “unfamiliar constellations” above them, before being thrown together by an unpleasant coincidence. That’s as good a motif as any for these stories – people pondering their own place in the universe, forced into unexpected connection by chance or fate. They’re about the worlds that we build around ourselves, and how strong the bonds of tradition or culture or family can be.
In “Averted Vision”, the first story here, two soldiers in the South China Sea in 1946 argue over what to do with the prisoner upon whose head they’ve dropped a rifle. “He’s only a Jap,” says one to the other, and in a moment of brutal clarity the second man thinks to himself, “he’s a Jap, I’m a taff. Who the fuck are you?” “Progress”, the second story, has a similar moment of blinding clarity at its climax: in it, a young man ponders returning to the pit village which years before he left to work on the railways. Living now in “three rented rooms,” he finds himself thinking again about his home with “the infestation of black pats, the cockroaches with nowhere to go at the cold end of the terrace,” eating “corned beef and potatoes,” and wondering if the life he’s chosen is the right one for his family. Both narratives are, in different ways, stories about the worlds we build around us, and the strength of those bonds. And Meredith shows these conflicts with subtlety, expertly depicting the way that the mind works.
If there’s a particular strength to this collection, it’s really the evocation of place – whether the “spew-stench” from the hold in “Averted Vision”, or “the dark sea broken with the glitter of points of starlight”, or the shabby village in “The Cavalry” with “the cloud down on the ridges of the hills like a lid”, every setting is carefully realised and evocative. Depicting a bleak Christmas day, “The Cavalry”, is told from a child’s perspective, and the skill with which Meredith picks up the details one notices at such an age is impressive. In the later stories, “Haptivox” and “Opening Time”, the style shifts to become less naturalistic, but the imagery is no less powerful: it’s these settings that will stick with me after reading.
There are gems to be found in every story, though. “The Enthusiast”, which is about somebody fumblingly reconnecting with an old school friend, captures the melancholy one feels when thinking back on missed connections in one’s past. It also contains some of my favourite writing in the book:
“The figures and graphs in front of me described the transmutation of one thing into another. They could even let you control it. But I’ve never understood. I thought of standing in the council house in City Gardens, looking from the smoking hearth to the smoking retort of the blast furnace, of the letters in dark blue on pale blue exhorting me to join something or other. What of any consequence could have happened in the moment that had passed since then?”
That extract, as well as anything, describes the vividness of Meredith’s writing, and the force with which he flips between past and present. There’s great writing in “The Cavalry”, too, when Mark describes how “Boxing Day was almost as good as Christmas day. There were Korky the Cat’s strange eyes and the patterns of bright colour in the annuals, the tree lights making coloured fingers on the branches through the plastic petals.”
There are occasional frustrations, nonetheless. “The Cavalry” switches between the perspectives of different characters in a way that’s unnecessary and oddly distracting, and diminishes some of the story’s force (the same can be said of “Averted Vision”). And for all their atmosphere, a couple of these stories are arguably rather slight, and I’m not wholly convinced that the way this collection is marketed – with “a unity of theme and sensibility” throughout – completely holds up. It’s certainly a stretch to say that “Progress” is thematically similar to the George Saunders-esque “Haptivox”.
A last note on “Haptivox”, the fifth story in this collection and the one that feels most unusual. It’s about a new technology allowing people to have sexual contact in a strange, virtual world. It’s melancholy, witty, enormously vivid: at its conclusion, it feels like the piece of writing in here that’s makes Meredith’s themes most explicit. It’s a big achievement, managing to be both lightly speculative and also grounded, fantastical but also emotive. It also felt to me like it belonged somewhere else, in another collection entirely: and perhaps that’s my failing as a critic, my inability to see how it links to the others, but the wrench of setting and content was too much for me. Meredith’s undeniably an extremely talented writer, but I wonder if he’s tried to stretch the concept too far here.
Lots to love in here, then, but as a collection I’m not completely sure it holds together. That’s not to say it’s not striking, evocative, even beautiful in large stretches – but I think each of these stories stand up better on their own than in the uneasy balance that they’ve been placed.
Brief Lives is published by Seren Books – you can buy it for £9.99 on Amazon here, or better yet, at their website here. I can’t find Christopher Meredith on Twitter, but Seren Books are here, and have an extensive and very interesting back catalogue.
Thanks to Seren Books for providing a free review copy of Brief Lives