We’re reading FIRST NOVEL by Nicholas Royle

13 Feb

Here’s one for the 300-odd people who’ve been entering our regular fiction competitions. Nan Craig (Scrapmetal, Arc 1.3 Afterparty Overdrive) reviews First Novel, an unreliably realistic novel by the horror, slipstream and just-plain-himself writer and editor Nicholas Royle.

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No one suggests that you have to have been in the army to enjoy a war novel, been in the police to enjoy a detective novel, or gone to university to enjoy a campus novel. But I did wonder, reading Nicholas Royle’s Manchester-set creative-writing-course novel, whether you had to have experienced that claustrophobic, obsessive environment in order to really appreciate First Novel. If you haven’t done a creative writing course, it will certainly put you off ever wanting to – unless you like the idea of torturing your tutors with creepily accurate stories about their pasts and secret proclivities. At first glance, First Novel seems to echo Philip Roth’s recent discouragement to young novelists: get out while you’re ahead; this way lies only misery, jealousy and personal disintegration.

Paul Kinder is a creative writing teacher at a Manchester course. His first and only novel is long out of print, he obsessively collects other first novels, and he regularly pores over a cuttings folder of the Guardian’s Writers’ Rooms series, looking for his book on the shelves of famous authors. He used to have a wife and children, but now he lives alone, except for a cat called Cleo and three mannequins – a female figure and two children – standing in an upstairs window.

First Novel is subtitled ‘A Mystery’, and the appearance of a body in the first few pages might mislead you into thinking that that’s the mystery at the heart of the story. But the real mystery is about what lies behind the facade of the narrator’s flat, affectless voice. The blank, vaguely sinister narration (Paul attends barbecues with colleagues, buys secondhand books, clears ivy in his garden, and drives around dogging sites at night under the Manchester airport flightpath) is cut with reminiscences about the breakdown of his marriage, and excerpts from his students’ writing, which intersect uncomfortably with Paul’s story.

As more of Paul’s past is revealed, his inability to make choices – or even distinguish between them – takes over, and his relationships with his students become more complicated and unsettling. Stories, lies and fiction repeat and echo each other. The appearance of real places and people – including the Stockport pyramid, and (briefly) novelists Elizabeth Baines and Siri Hustvedt – blurs the line between fiction and reality even further.

Dark and sometimes funny (sometimes just grim), First Novel makes uncomfortable reading for anyone who wants to write a novel. The rest of you might actually enjoy it.

First Novel by Nicholas Royle
Published 3 January 2013 by Jonathan Cape
£16.99 (Hardcover, 304 pages)

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