Monday, August 11, 2014

First Novel by Nicholas Royle

A couple of years ago Nicholas Royle, the Manchester-based novelist (and academic) introduced Nicholas Royle, his namesake, the academic, and now, debut novelist. The idea of the doppelganger is a key one in modernist fiction, but its only one of the tropes that Royle employs in last year’s “First Novel.”

Royle, a creative writing lecturer living in Didsbury, Manchester is writing about Paul Kinder, a creative writing lecturer living in Didsbury. As an actual neighbour of the writer, the veracity of the novel, from named roads, to “The Art of Tea” bookshop, to my friend, the writer Elizabeth Baines who makes several walk-on appearances, I can vouch for. Yet “First Novel” is a hall of mirrors. Kinder is running a course on “First novels” yet his own first novel is not so much hard-to-find as impossible to find. It came out on a small press, was hardly reviewed, hardly sold. When old copies come up Kinder buys them. He lives alone. We suspect his wife has left him with his children (though the truth of this will take a while to emerge). He is obsessed with the local characters round Didsbury village, including Overcoat Man, a man he has seen attacked by a group of young people, some of whom he suspects are in his class.

Yet the novel is fractured and fragmented from the start – this scene doesn’t happen in either this book, or the book Kinder is writing – though it sort of comes through in one of the scenes he asks his class to write.

At the same time one of his students, a talented young girl called Grace is writing a novel that has some power. We get key extracts from the early part of the book. It’s a somewhat traditional, but vivid, tale of an incident in the early 60s in Zanzibar, and that follows the life of the RAF airman Ray whose life was changed by it.  Ray becomes a poet, and has a son Nicholas, who he pretty much abandons – partly out of the tragedy that strikes him, partly as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality during the 60s and 70s.

Kinder is not particularly enjoying his job. He seems to know he is a fraud, and a fellow lecturer comes up to him at one point, as he reads something out at an (actual) Manchester literary life and criticises it for being very like “Fight Club.” It dawns on the reader eventually, that Royle/Kinder has got his excuses in first. It’s a hint if you like that this novel you are reading is somehow the one that Kinder is writing.

Though its not explicit we understand that Kinder is writing a book about the airport. These bits of the book are Ballardian, as he drives out to the airport and watches the planes fly overhead. At a party he meets pilots and air hostesses who all seem to live in Didsbury (which was news to me!) because of its proximity to the airport. When a newcomer speaks to him at these parties, the slightly comical Lewis, it seems that the plane motif has a more serious angle, for Lewis has his own secret, his own tragedy. The flying lore creates a postmodern tone to the novel, as does Kinder’s obsession with both the rooms of writers in a Guardian series, and the spines of books. Kinder collects white spined Picadors and different series of Penguins. These OCD-like traits seem to be part of his hold on reality. Kinder’s first person narrative frequently offers a choose-your-own-adventure trope. After dismantling the Kindle work has bough him he muses “I would be able to put the Kindle back together again, or I won’t.”

That either/or – the two possible paths is both reminiscent of the fatalism of Luke Reinhart’s “The Dice Man” and also the truth facing any writer. The characters have choices, but the writer has to choose.

As the book progresses, we get more of the story Grace is writing, but to confuse things we also get a story that another student Helen writes: where she follows Kinder home, and begins a fascination and flirtation with him.

The novel’s timescales sometimes confuse. We are set in an actual but specific near-present. The tram has yet to arrive in Didsbury, but is coming. We know of his wife, Veronica, but do not see her. They married early and had children too fast – but these reminisces are of an earlier life, in London. When does Kinder’s debut novel fit into this? Lines are blurred. At the same time there are obsessions that are only partially explained. It is Paul Auster-ish world of false trails and possible clues. He is obsessed with the Co-op Pyramid building in Stockport, and goes as far to ask a Co-op bank worker out in the hope of getting to see it.

At the same time Grace’s novel is changing. The somewhat evocative colonial novel, is turning into something that is far more expositional.  Yet though “First Novel” is quite cutting about the type of writing – good, bad and indifferent – that comes on a creative writing course, I don’t think we’re intended to make judgements on this. For the stories in the novel are themselves all versions of truths and it is when these versions begin to mould into each other, as fact and fiction intermingle, that the novel’s dark intent becomes clearer.

There’s a temptation in a novel that is so meta- in some many ways to play at its own game. Surely it’s the Paramount Book Exchange “on Shude Hill” not “in Shude Hill” as it says on the novel’s first page. Is there an indulgence in the naming of some of the books being mentioned? Or is this partly a detective game for book sleuths? Real life plane crashes and a notorious North West murderer make unexpected appearances, blurring still further the fact/fiction line. Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster have walk on parts, are thanked in the acknowledgements and the former’s debut novel (the Blindfold) which is perhaps not widely known, has an important role to play it seems. There are some nice literary digs – at the middle class writers who all seem to have the same desk; the same highly expensive chair.

But Royle, whose short stories and editing of short stories are what he’s most known for, is not a writer to ever suffer hubris even in a longer work like this. If the many pieces don’t quite fit together seamlessly, they require a considerable scaffolding and the edifice, though it might look like toppling at some points, never quite falls down. There are echoes of a few prevalent themes in contemporary fiction in the novel. Zadie Smith’s essay comparing Joseph O’Neill and Tom McCarthy as two different routes for contemporary fiction always seemed to miss their inherent similarities. “First Novel” has echoes of “Netherland” and “Remainder”, with a protagonist who seems caught in a place from which he can’t escape. The twists at the end are Royle the short fiction writer not so much pulling the strands together (they are simply too twisted and layered for that) as pulling a rabbit or two out of the hat.

Knowing both the writer, and his milieu I guess I’m in on quite a few of the in-jokes, but even if I wasn’t it seems a particularly satisfying and knowing contemporary satire. If it doesn’t quite know whether to take its philosophical points seriously or not, this is at one with the novel’s existential admittance, that it might be all serious, or then again it might not; it might be all true, or then again not.

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