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First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape, 2013) is a slightly challenging but ultimately fascinating book. Think binary: to read a printed book or digital characters on a Kindle screen, read only the first novel or read all the novels by one author, turn left or right, stay or move on. Individually, each decision is insignificant, but significance comes in the accumulation of such decisions, particularly if the choices are skewed by external factors or prejudices. Indeed, the more “ordered” the mind, the greater the potential for obsessional behaviour. A possible example would be placing dummies in a bedroom. This could be Sylvia Plath translated into the real world or the representation of a surrogate family. Talking about obsessional, there’s Grace, a young student on the university course our “hero” teaches on first novels. She’s interested in our first-person narrator, maybe even following him to a bookstore he frequents. And just who is this man who teaches creative writing at a place of higher learning in Manchester? And how reliable a narrator is he, he who sometimes claims to be unable to distinguish between being alive and being dead? Or to know whether to be unfaithful to his wife? And if she finds out, whether the marriage will survive — barring suicide, of course.

If we want to get technical, this is a work of metafiction with a very precise interest in the creative processes that go into writing. The question most pertinent is whose responsibility it is to tell the story and whether it should be told in a linear structure. As an example, there’s the elegant short horror story about salt that wraps up the first section in this book. Reading the main body of the text in order, our narrator instructs his class to write a piece about a recent experience. After hearing the readings, he may independently verify the substance of one or two pieces written. This intertextual story, set in a different font, may be about one of these students visiting his house except the protagonist does not mention it or comment on it. This may be evidence of his unreliability as a narrator. He’s protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to his own first novel. If one of his students read this story out in class, he would not fail to mention it. So it may be the student who wrote it did not hand it to another to read in or no-one read it out in class, or it may prove to be something else entirely like a story written by Helen, one of his MA students, and taken out of context.

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

This signals the novel as a work of intertextuality. As one very obvious example, the text of one of Nicholas Royle’s short stories, “Very Low-Flying Aircraft”, which was first published in Exotic Gothic 3 and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One is scattered through the first sections of this novel. The authorship is later attributed to Grace. In other words, the format of this novel is like a jigsaw and, as the title suggests, it’s for the reader to reassemble pieces like a puzzle and, thereby, to solve the mystery of who this protagonist is. Nicholas Royle is reflecting on the craft of the novelist which is usually to take his or her own experiences and to recast them as fiction. This is not to say the writing of fiction is essentially autobiographical. But we readers expect events to match our own experiences of the world. The test of credibility is whether we’ve seen the same thing ourselves. To fictionalise and get the best results, it may be necessary for the author to change the point of view so the readers get a different understanding of the events described. So if a wife and children leave home in one version, they may be killed in another. Either way the marriage ends. The fact of its ending will feel emotionally credible. We’ve all known marriages that fail, often because of infidelity. The surviving husband will be devastated, particularly if he’s to lose custody of the children. So for the readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth of what happened. All that maters is whether the fictional version reads as if it is true. It may also benefit to switch from first- to third-person. After all, omniscient authors know what’s happening.

The implicit question posed in the title of this book is, I suppose, why some authors only write one novel or later deny it. That singular excursion into text can be wonderful yet it’s never followed up, or the author does keep writing, but every time a new novel appears and the backlist is mined for titles to rerelease, the first novel never seems to reappear. It’s as if the author or the publisher is somehow embarrassed by it. An example of a brilliant first novel would be The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt which is a study in female identity suggesting that our culture objectifies and denigrates women. Initially the female protagonist is lost and confused as if trying to navigate social relationships while wearing a blindfold. Then she experiments by assuming the role of a young man. In the end, her fragile ego is overwhelmed by the stronger men around her. There’s no happy ending. In this novel, we have multiple views of a male character who’s fundamentally uncertain who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. Were it not for the odd episodes of sex in cars, you might think him entirely passive, living helplessly if not arbitrarily on the basis of binary decisions: to do or not to do, that is the question.

Taken overall, First Novel: A Mystery is a fascinating piece of writing, exploring the nature of identity and how to capture it on the page. As in the real world, we can often only build up an idea of who a person is by assembling facts and impressions from multiple sources spread over time. Not everyone can afford a private inquiry agent to put together a comprehensive dossier on a person with everything neatly set out in chronological order. So Nicholas Royle here reflects the fractured nature of a personality. We might see different aspects of a character at different times in different circumstances. Only in retrospect can we piece together the most coherent view of the person, lifting the blindfold and looking back with more perfect vision. Sadly, it’s often the case that the most chameleon-like of individuals have something to hide.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see Regicide.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Regicide by Nicholas Royle

We need to start this review with a little history. In 1949, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote his first novel. It’s called Un Régicide but, for some typically Gallic reasons, it never actually saw the light of publication until 1978. There were a few editorial changes but, for the most part, the original novel transcended the years with very few changes. What was true just after the War, was true many years later. Thematically, the book is about loneliness. We have a confusion between the first-person narrator on an island and third-person Boris who lives in a city. Except there’s a kind of labyrinth in operation which links the two locations. Indeed, they may even be the same place with the island created as a dreamscape by Boris. The interesting feature of our named character is his lack of true friends, hence his possible escapism through the fog to the island. The sea around this island probably symbolises death as the dreams become nightmares that end with images of imprisonment.

Now we come to Nicholas Royle, a man whose short fiction has consistently been of the highest possible quality. He now offers Regicide (Solaris Books, 2011), his sixth adventure into the longer form, this time with a more modern take on themes similar to those raised by Robbe-Grillet. Here we have Carl. When he was young and fit, he was a cycle courier in London. As a lover of maps and visual puzzles, the freedom to explore and find new ways through the city gave him great satisfaction. Now he’s suffocating as the owner of a shop dealing in collectible records and some old books. On his first date with Annie Risk (a provocative name if ever there was one), he gets lost when walking her back to her hotel — not something that happens to him very often. On the way back to his flat, he feels disconnected from reality and, much to his own surprise, breaks into a house where he can hear a telephone ringing. Perhaps the call is for him. Some days later outside the shop, he finds part of a street map. He has no idea where it is. The challenge is whether he can find the places. Or perhaps whether the fragment he has found is like a piece of cheese in a mousetrap designed to catch clever people like Carl.

Nicholas Royle, master of the long and short forms

Carl is struggling to read Un Régicide but, with only schoolboy French, it’s slow progress. This is a man who enjoys a solitary challenge, but we are also to focus on the relationship between the man and the book. Because his translation skills are second best, it’s like trying to see the world described in the book through a fog of only partial understanding. In Robbe-Grillet’s novel, we also meet a man who struggles to see where he’s going because of the fog. You will therefore understand there’s a conscious parallelism between the dreamscapes in both the French original and Royle’s novel. Rather like China Miéville’s fascination with cityscapes, we are to consider the relationship between the world we think we see as we ride or drive through it, and the reality behind it. In the cinema before CGI, we often saw painted backdrops and simple frontages thrown up on backlots. Today, much of the background we see in film and television is unreal, generated by computers. Similarly, in the real world, you might visit a place designed for tourists. You will be given a map that’s designed to encourage you only to visit the designated places that will earn the town or city the most money. You’re not expected to slip through the side streets to discover the world beyond — the world where the locals live, the world where it’s often dirty and dangerous. . . Carl is a man who feels threatened. It’s as if this other world is somehow seeping out through the cracks and crannies of his normality, from around the back of the gasholders, from the unseen places we only glimpse from the corners of our eyes. Even if someone gives us a map, how reliable is it? The fact it does not have a legend warning of the presence of dragons, does not means there are no monsters waiting to eat us if we step off the path stretching in front of us. Life is never as predictable as we would like.

So here’s the question for you. When you dream, past and present, reality and unreality get all mixed up. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the waking from the dream worlds. They blend together as your eyes flicker uneasily under closed lids. How do you know when it’s a dream? As a final thought, when people lose track of reality, they often remember or relive episodes from their past. When those past events were traumatic, recalling them can be very disturbing. I’m reminded that kings are often revered as the father of their country. That makes regicide akin to patricide.

Regicide is a book I found interesting rather than gripping. As it develops, there are elements of horror, but the underlying themes are guilt, darkness and death. We fear the dark because we cannot see where we are. We fear death because we cannot see what will happen afterwards. We fear what we have done during life because we see our own imperfections all too clearly.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see First Novel: A Mystery.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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