Thursday, January 3, 2013
Jonathan Cape, 2013
The novel opens with a scene in which the main character of the book, Paul Kinder, parses his Kindle to pieces, and then just throws it away. Paul is obsessed with debut novel, especially those that are out of print or whose authors no longer even mention their first books. Paul is an author of a novel published by a small press, and now it’s almost impossible to find copies of his book. He lives alone in Manchester and teaches creative writing at the University, leading the the First Novel course. Paul is unsociable and most people he remembers only for their identifying signs: Overcoat Man, Dog Man, Umbrella Lady, etc. Paul spends his spare time in the garden, touches his collection of paperback books, as well as looks in second-hand stores for rare books.
In the beginning of the book one of Paul’s students named Grace refers to the teacher with a problem: she can not find all the books from the list of recommended reading, and Paul gives her his number, so that later they could meet and he lent her a copy. On the same day, when Paul takes a walk in the park, he finds the body of Overcoat Man. Paul scours body, wearing gloves, but in the pockets finds only five pounds bill. Paul goes on in the evening barbecue to his friends, AJ and Carol.
There, he meets his pal Lewis. One of the guests mentions that Paul is a writer, but he says that he only writes about restaurants and books and does not mention novels. Both Paul and Lewis recently moved to Manchester, although once grew up here. AJ and Carol live near the airport, and the conversation inevitably comes to the fact that in this area there are many pilots. Paul writes his second novel about the pilots and collects material for it.
The story told in the first person is punctuated with excerpts from a novel, but whose novel is this - it will become clear only at the end of the book.
First Novel by Nicholas Royle is not Royle’s first novel, the title shouldn’t mislead you. Royle is a master of strange prose, prose of dream and macabre (I've read in the past year two of his stories, and I still remember I did not understand half of them). This novel is a delightful dizziness while being exercise in style. After reading the book once, you could not understand everything that was happening in the book. First Novel requires focus and concentration, it’s not the book you will read in a one sitting. I read the book twice, but I'm sure that some of the plot twists and turns are still left hidden from me.
The book combined several techniques of writing. The beginning of the novel is almost plotless fiction written in first person, largely autobiographical (Royle himself is obsessed with debut novels). Later in the book the writer inserts fragments of the novel, which later transformed into an independent story - a family chronicle. The author then begins to shift the narrative lens, and strangeness, mismatches, overlaies appears. Deeper into the novel Royle already writes dreamlike prose, where it is difficult to understand who is alive and who is not, who is real and who is not, who is the hero of the novel, and who is the hero of the novel inside the novel. The end is experimental, written in the future tense, where the protagonist is at a crossroads. He either is delusional, or dreams, or just trying to forget. Each technique is used for a reason, and works on a whole story. A fragment of the novel becomes the past, present is questionable, fictional characters are indistinguishable from nonfictional. This is one of those books where you have to question not only what the narrator said, but everything else as well.
However by the finale pieces of the puzzle are beginning to take shape, and the ending is truly a strange and shocking, sophisticated and unpleasant. Nobody will get what he wanted. No one will be happy, because how can there be happiness in such a distorted world.
Subplot (also a novel in the novel) about the pilot Raymond Cross is less spectacular, it is more typical. However, this can be attributed to the fact that this is a novel written by a student, and how expect the perfection from a person who is just learning.
The book, of course, is not just an exercise in style. Royle raises subjects of choice and parental responsibility for the fate of children, generously sprinkles them with black humor and twists the plot as anyone rarely can.
This book is a mature and unusual, and certainly not for everyone.