Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99
Nicholas Royle’s First Novel, which is really his seventh, contains a brief paean to the short story. “You can take risks that you wouldn’t in a novel. How much time has the reader lost reading it? And if we get it, if our suspension of disbelief is unbroken, it’s all worth it.”
At the start of First Novel, Paul Kinder, a creative writing teacher, deconstructs a Kindle – quite literally, with a screwdriver. Dragged out over three pages of Royle’s unremarkable prose, the scene is a torpid and predictable beginning to a story that announces its metafictional affiliations in its title. Yet the rest of the book is dense with risks and, happily, most of them pay off.
All the usual meta-checkboxes get ticked. A methodical description of Kinder’s room includes a mention of an “A4 wallet-style folder marked ‘Writers’ Rooms’ ”. There is the obligatory character named Nicholas. Two writers are both preoccupied by the idea of “either-or” – either left or right, either alive or dead, “how it can all either be very important or not make a fuck of a lot of difference” – obliquely highlighting the author’s omnipotence and his characters’ helpless fictitiousness. (This trope is echoed by the mannequins that Kinder keeps in his study.)
Metafiction is no longer such a trendy drug, and a lot of these literary games feel hackneyed to the point of quaintness. But First Novel delivers its buzz by means of an older and much more powerful medium: plot. On page nine, Kinder is running a workshop at the university. “Pick something memorable that has happened to you in the past week involving two other people,” he tells his students, “and write about it from a point of view other than your own.” The exercise is anonymous; the results are distributed round the class at random and read aloud. One student writes about a crowd of young people hassling a tramp. A girl holds out a fiver. When the tramp reaches for it, she pulls it away and a scuffle ensues, ending with the tramp being pushed down a steep path. Hearing the story, Kinder realises that he was a partial witness to the same scene, which took place the previous day on the old railway line outside his house. When the workshop is over, he investigates the area and uncovers the tramp’s body.
This is just the first in an intricate – yet almost always lucid – series of jinks and layerings. Although First Novel plays with our assumptions about authorship, Royle’s narrative taran - tella is kin not to the postmodernism of Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt (both mentioned in the acknowledgements), but to Roald Dahl – the Dahl of the twisted short story twist. Think of “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”, in which an electrical engineer named Knipe builds a novel-writing machine with a control system that allows the “author” to “preselect literally any type of plot and any style of writing he desired”.
The real novelists can’t compete with the machine’s pace; by the end of the story, over half the writers in Britain have been bought out by Knipe. In the final paragraph, we learn that our own narrator is about to crack and sign the contract that will give Knipe the rights to his name.
First Novel is compelling for the same reasons as Dahl’s work is compelling: for its suspense, for its surprises, for its gleeful use of the macabre. It is not a novel to be savoured for the quality of its prose (although much of that, we discover, is intentionally substandard, because it was written by a creative writing student still prone to cliché and TV dialogue). Nor is there much in the way of psychological plausibility. Everything is subservient to the tricks and turns of the plot. When Nicholas and Liz decide to adopt a four-year-old boy, they are “put fully in the picture” about his troubled past: a suicide attempt by his birth father, who tried to kill both himself and the boy by running exhaust fumes into a car. We are not told this; Royle wants the nature of the trauma to be a surprise for the reader. The first time Nicholas tries to put his adopted son in a car and the little boy becomes hysterical, Nicholas is stupidly, improbably mystified – as are we. “I don’t know what’s going on. I opened the car door and he went ballistic.”
Maybe that doesn’t matter, because this book generates its magnetism from the narrative puzzles it poses and the ingenuity with which it answers them. Royle’s coup is to deliver the pithy sting of a good short story many times over the course of a whole novel. If Dahl is an easy Monday-morning sudoku, First Novel is one of those ones marked “Fiendish” or “Inferno” – it will take you all Sunday, but there’s immense satisfaction to be had in solving it.
Claire Lowdon is the assistant editor of Areté magazine