‘I’m just wondering if it gets a bit Grand Guignol?’

Nicholas Royle, First Novel

Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £16.99 , ISBN 9780224096980

reviewed by Sara D'Arcy

Nicholas Royle’s First Novel is a cunning piece of metafiction which blurs the bounds between fact and fiction - a pedantically self-conscious take on the campus novel. Taking inspiration from Vladimir Nabokov’s campus novel-cum-murder mystery Pale Fire (GP Putnam’s Sons, 1962), Royle’s seventh novel follows a creative writing lecturer who may or may not like having sex in cars and who may or may not be a murderer.

The central protagonist, Paul Kinder, is the author of a failed novel published under another name, and is obsessed with first novels, Boeing 747s, and suburban dogging sites. He fantasises about driving across busy roads without checking for oncoming traffic and has a wife and two children who are suspiciously absent from the text. He also has a striking resemblance to Royle himself – who also teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, has a wife and two children, and a predilection for first novels. Royle has invited autobiographical readings of his book, intensifying First Novel’s metafictionality by playfully commenting:
They say you should write about what you know. I became a lecturer in creative writing six or seven years ago and have been very interested in first novels, and their supposed inclination towards autobiography, for many years. I am not saying I have never had sex in a car.
First Novel opens with an exacting account of Kinder’s daily routine, including tediously detailed lists of titles on his office bookshelf (mostly first novels), jargon-filled descriptions of his chilling dissection of a Kindle, and an abstract, Sat Nav-like route of his twilight drives where he is either doing research for his next novel or seeking out fellow-doggers. This abstract navigation of South Manchester – for the most part, an inventory of road names and labyrinthine lefts and rights – leaves the reader disoriented and adrift, in a mindset similar to the protagonist who finds it hard to distinguish between left and right, on and off, life and death, because ‘both variations are possible' so he finds it ‘impossible to distinguish between them.’ This apathetic tone and obsessive detail brilliantly illustrates Kinder’s disturbing character – if it manages to retain its reader beyond the first twenty pages – and sets the foundations for a perplexing work of metafiction.  

The initial stall in the narrative is re-fuelled when Kinder stops his idle driving and observes a group of youths jostling a homeless man from his pyramid-shaped attic office – until the man falls down the steep wasteland towards a disused railway line and never returns. In his next creative writing workshop, one of his students bases their story on the incident, precipitating the writing of a novel full of mysterious revelations – that may or may not be autobiographical – and Kinder’s mental decline.

The narrative alternates between Kinder’s struggle to pen his second novel and the writing of his students until the reader is unsure who exactly is narrating the novel. The distinction between fiction and ‘reality’ is distorted while the prose unexpectedly vacillates from the prosaic to incandescent images that glow with ‘jazz-club blues and traffic-light reds’ and memorable scenes that assault all the senses:

He saw a figure in a blue uniform falling from the roof of the truck and something the size of a football rolling down the beach towards the sea.

‘Christ!’ said Ray.

One of the girls started screaming.
The golden sand, the turquoise sea. Rolling and rolling ... Henshaw, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. Over and over ... The golden sand again, darker, wetter. White foam, tinged pink.

As well as producing poetic scenes such as this one, Royle unpicks his writing to expose not only the literary techniques and conceits but also the flaws. When discussing the work of one student who is writing about an affair with her teacher, Kinder comments:

‘It’s interestingly metafictional ... I’m just wondering if it gets a bit Grand Guignol?’
‘But nothing happens ... It’s all implied.’
‘But if it were to happen, as implied, wouldn’t it be a bit Grand Guignol?’  

Kinder’s (or Royle’s) creative writing tutorials add an extra layer of metafictionality to an already puzzling piece of metafiction, which saves – or at least excuses – the novel’s subsequent spiral into the macabre. First Novel’s quiet and obsessive opening ruminations on the everyday transform into a slick and compelling read that drives the reader through an unsettling narrative of beheadings and plane crashes, murders precipitated by affairs, AIDS and Dr Harold Shipman, dogging to the drones of Boeing 747s, and murdered sons who become murderous daughters. All of which, when taken as a whole, is completely implausible and at times threatens – like Kinder warns one of his students – to take a leap of the imagination but leave the reader behind.

First Novel, however, uses its flaws to its advantage to produce a troublesome and dexterously compiled metafiction. Royle deftly displays his talent for the surreal and the psychologically disturbing, constructing an enigmatic close that continues to unfold multiple narrative possibilities. First Novel may or may not be brilliant, but it is certainly, at the very least, a very good novel.
Sara D'Arcy is a freelance journalist based in London. She likes books, cats, and red wine, more or less in that order.