Wednesday, January 02, 2013

First Novel: a seventh novel by Nicholas Royle

How on earth do you review a novel written by someone you know and in which you encounter a character bearing your name and answering vaguely to your description but doing something you never did? This has been my experience on reading a proof copy of Nicholas Royle's new novel, First Novel, published tomorrow, 3rd January, and aptly described on the jacket as a 'fiendish piece of metafiction that blends reality and imagination to unsettling effect'.

Like his author, protagonist Paul Kinder is a lecturer in Creative Writing at a university in Manchester and lives here in Didsbury, the geographical details of which - along with some of the local inhabitants - are made carefully and vividly recognisable to those who know it in life. Unlike his author, who has several novels and many other publications to his name, Kinder once wrote (under a different name) a single novel that sank without trace and is now obsessed with first novels, collecting them from secondhand-book shops and (by default) teaching a course on First Novels. Meanwhile at night he drives around the dogging sites under the flightpaths of South Manchester, ostensibly researching a second novel, and remembers events in London, before his move to Manchester, which led to the breakdown of his marriage.

Interwoven with this narrative are others, in cleverly different prose styles, which are being written, it soon turns out, by his students. A first-person narrative written by MA Novel student Helen describes an encounter with a character who is clearly and unsettlingly Kinder in a house whose details so match Kinder's own it seems she must have been stalking him. Another, presented anonymously, spookily describes an incident Kinder saw two days before from the window of his home study: the harrassment and possible murder of a homeless man. More substantial, and the most obviously fictive, is the story of Ray, an RAF officer posted to Zanzibar in the 60s, and written by Grace, an undergraduate Kinder finds disturbing. But then First Novel is a book that turns the real and the fictive/fictional on end, and all of this culminates in a shocking connection we could never have guessed, and a dismantling of our assumptions about the reality of some important aspects of Paul Kinder's Didsbury activities.

Needless to say, this clever and thought-provoking novel more than touches on the issues with which this blog has often been concerned: the complex relationship between fiction and reality, the sometimes blurred edges between the two and the way that each can deeply affect the other. (Not to mention the issues around the teaching of Creative Writing.) Paul Kinder has difficulty distinguishing between right and left, on and off, and, as the novel progresses, in making choices of action, underlining the important point that not only is fiction contingent, poised on multiple narrative possibilities, reality is too - a point generally belied by conventional narrrative which fixes reality into single possibility. Everything here is under question, even metafiction, and so by implication First Novel's own metafictive status. Paul asks Helen of her own metafictive piece in which he and she appear: 
Would it seem bold taken out of context? If you weren't you and I wasn't me?
As for me: well, this is nothing like the time someone wrote a novel (unpublished) entirely about me without changing my writing name while changing everyone else's names - that really was deeply spooky.  The Elizabeth Baines in First Novel has only a walk-on part and, frankly, she's an imposter.

Though I've a damn good mind to write a riposte...
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