Astonishment in the Face of Being: An encounter with David Rose’s Meridian by Aiden O’Reilly 3rd December 2018 – Posted in: Blog
For decades David Rose was the kind of writer who ekes out their literary existence in the shanty town of the small press scene. He had over four dozen stories published, and yet, such magazines being what they are, his name was more or less unknown. Even the names of many of those magazines are now forgotten, particularly those that closed up shop before the Internet Dawn. Luckily the best of his fictions have now been collected in Posthumous Stories, published by Salt in 2013. Roses’s breakthrough to book publication came before that, with his novel Vault (subtitled An Anti-Novel) in 2011.
In interviews, Rose has spoken about his interest in random methods in fiction (Oulipian and homonyms). He says the use of these in his new (and final) novel Meridian was partly motivated by a lack of ideas and narrative direction.
This is a startling admission for a writer. We tend to think of writers as bursting with stories that needs to be told. Rose is not that kind of writer, at least not in this book. In fact a couple of dozen pages in, I was growing increasingly puzzled, frustrated even, and I set the book aside. When I picked it up in a better mood, I began at the very beginning. In my haste I had never read the front matter nor even the subtitle: A Day In The Life With Incidental Voices.
Never was a subtitle more necessary. The several epigraphs too shed light on how to read the work; the first being “What God in His curiosity needed was the actuality of the world”. Once I abandoned the craving for plot, it became a pleasure to read, and is written in pellucid prose with an immediacy that sweeps the reader along. The novel follows a day-in-the-life of an architect in Staines. A perfectly ordinary day, although this day he chooses to wear a body camera device. The narrative is interspersed with precise descriptions of snapshots, often taken from disorientating angles, but a close reading always links them to the architect’s current actions. The architect comes across as reflective, calm, somewhat intellectual –inclined to drop mention of classical composers. But he is very affable: he falls into conversation with an alcoholic on a park bench and accepts a drink from him.
Then at noon the architect’s story abruptly breaks off, and the narrative “I” begins a chaotic skip through different minds. I couldn’t help but think of this section as a hovering wizard eye which can observe from the perspective of any human consciousness in and around the vicinity of Staines. However this “I” is liable to be ejected at any random moment and enter another mind.
A prodigious talent is here on display. Any one of the brief “Incidental Voices” could be expanded to become a whole short story. It’s an awe-inspiring eruption of lives-in-motion, leaving me impressed and overwhelmed. We blitz though the lives of an alcoholic, a traditional cobbler, an artist considering pigments, unnamed people going about their rather vague daily business, a couple discussing whether to keep a pig in their urban back garden, a financial advisor, an Eastern European working as a shepherd in the Green Belt, and – why not – the Queen herself.
What’s it all for? Why expend such imagination, such craft, on these incidental voices? There’s something demonic about this stochastic “tuning in” to minds. Yes, the characters are captured with great immediacy, and yes, it’s like a praise-poem to the diversity of human experience. But when displayed in flashcard fragments like this, it becomes eerie, almost hellish. We are only human, we want our storytellers to make sense of the world for us, not to blind us with visionary glimpses.
The author seems to have taken pains to randomise his choice of characters and situations, although keeping them all within Staines. The reader however inevitably looks for some common thread or concerns. Rose’s characters by and large are not the damaged, not victims, not lost souls. They are in the main practicing a craft, making plans, trying to find the right way to accomplish something. It’s a view of humanity as Homo Faber – man the maker – and optimistic in a quiet way. Only towards the end is the sufficiency of such an approach to life questioned.
In interview Rose mentions Ulysses as a progenitor of his novel. In a random browse through the web I came across the text of Carl Jung’s 1932 Ulysses essay, and read it with increasing recognition and delight.
“Obviously, I have so much of the Philistine in my blood that I am naive enough to suppose that a book wants to tell me something, to be understood–a sad case of mythological anthropomorphism projected on to the book! … The incredible versatility of Joyce’s style has a monotonous and hypnotic effect. Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it.”
The ‘Voices’ section also put me in mind of the immortalist Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov. He was so horrified at the transience of life that he initiated a project to resurrect every human who has ever lived and save their experiences from oblivion. His project was big in ambition but short on details. Meridian satisfies itself with a random sample in and about Staines on the afternoon of an unspecified date. Our architect too, we learn later that evening, has his own secret immortalist yearnings, with his body camera, his snapshots, and his notes. “And now, approaching midnight, zero-hour (time distorts; it may be later), it is finished. Sign off the project. Leave it to find its niche in posterity.”
At some point in the afternoon the ‘Voices’ section ends and the narrative ‘I’ flicks back to the architect. It is unstable however, and keeps flicking back into the voices of those encountered earlier. The author, it seems, is a true believer in the power of randomness to generate illumination which could not otherwise be achieved. Uncertainty and accidental encounters permeate the novel – the music of chance is the dominant mode. The architect’s thoughts at certain points give an insight in how to approach the book: “I suddenly felt I understood , not just the idea, but the need for randomness, in an almost physical experience, a breath of fresh air in the stuffy bar.” “Looking back over my day, my life, its texture of relationships, it all seems so suddenly tenuous, so touch-and-go, so mockingly fragile.”
There will be resolution, states the stark epigraph on an otherwise empty page. Perhaps tauntingly. Or perhaps – if I’m not reading too much into it – an assertion that it’s human nature to make a story of events, and that the reader will supply the resolution which the author’s conscience will not allow him to provide.
The final pages are daring and enigmatic, and reach out towards thoughts and feelings which might be unique to this architect, or might be on the way to becoming increasingly common in our era. This novel is not for everybody, but how many it is for is an unknown quantity.
Aiden O’Reilly is a writer from Dublin. His short fiction appears in Unthology 4 and The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, edited by Ashley Stokes (which also includes David Rose’s story Ariel). His short fiction collection, Greetings, Hero is published by Honest.
Meridian: A Day in the Life with Incidental Voices was published by Unthank in 2015 and is available in hardback and for your Kindle. It is about everyone and it deserves to be read. You can order a copy here.