First Novel by Nicholas Royle
March 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
Nicholas Royle is the editor of the Best British Short Stories series published by Salt, as well as the author of several previous novels. Since I haven’t read his other work I don’t know how typical First Novel is, but the title, along with the curious fact that the author thanks “Nicholas Royle” in the acknowledgements (who, I later learn when reading an interview with Royle, is actually another writer who shares his name—although can we be sure that this is not simply the author extending the conceit?), set the metafictional tone.
Paul Kinder is a lecturer in creative writing in Manchester. He’s recently moved to the area and no longer sees his family since he divorced his wife, Veronica. As he adjusts to his new home and settles into teaching, he starts to research his own novel, which involves driving to airports with young women, including students, for various odd reasons (not always the expected ones). Paul’s narrative is intercut with what seem, at first, to be random stories unrelated to the novel, but it becomes clear as things progress that they are stories written by the students in his class, primarily Grace and Helen. As some of Helen’s stories tell some of Paul’s stories from another perspective, and even invent—so we think—events between them that have not happened, the bias of Paul’s narration shows through the cracks. It also works as an real-time investigation into metafiction, or autobiographical fiction, or even the axiom about writing what you know—indeed, the whole notion of teaching creative writing.
In addition to Paul’s present, the stories of Grace and Helen, and the strange narrative of the mysterious Lewis, a man Paul meets at a friend’s house who muscles his way into Paul’s life, the novel is also the story of Paul’s past, and a time when he went by another name, the name under which his first novel—hard to track down—was published. But it’s also a book to read for its descriptions of other (real) first novels, and its hilarious commentary on the Guardian’s Writers’ Rooms series (Paul is obsessed by the details of the furniture, and notices which writers have the same type of chair or the same desk. The real purpose of his focus, however, is to see if his first novel is visible in the photographs.)
The cover blurb (which is a little offputting, managing to be both trite and clever-clever—although really, when don’t I find cover blurb off-putting?) gives genre possibilities for this book as twisted campus novel or possible murder mystery, and it is a little of both. But in common with a lot of books I’ve been reading over the past few months, it takes elements from various genres, including the very literary and mashes them up with some great writing. First Novel reminds me a little of Hawthorn and Child, Keith Ridgway’s latest book (one that I intended to write about but somehow never did). Both are concerned with subverting genre; both are carefully written by widely read, intellectual authors; both are intriguing and absorbing. If First Novel is more satisfying in a traditional sense—the pieces of the puzzle come together with a full meaning at the end, unlike Hawthorn and Child, which branches off continually in new directions rather than coming full circle—they both play with and question linear narrative, memory and the representation of the real (or the realism of representation, perhaps). Question after clue after connection prolong the intrigue before finally falling gratifyingly into place
First Novel might sound complex, but it’s as easy, compelling read. If the writing assignment was to use all the most interesting techniques of postmodernism to create an intellectually stimulating, funny, serious and clever novel, Nicholas Royle has more than made the grade.
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