Sometimes a novel comes along that impresses me to the point where I am left wondering – even as I read the last 50 pages – how in the hell I will come to write my thoughts. Some novels are so convoluted and built from the ground up by tiny nuances that any real description poses the possibility of spoiling the experience for somebody else. The blurb for First Novel by Nicholas Royle says it all. It is cryptic because it needs to be. Is the book a murder mystery or just a tale of a man who enjoys dogging? Is it a piece on the “human condition” or is it the blackest of black comedies? Even after each of the 295 pages of the novel, I’m still unsure but what I can say categorically is that it is a novel about a broken man.
Royle has sculpted a work that is as readable as it is subversive. What opens as a piece about a man who teaches creative writing and keeps a few obsessions turns into a sprawling tale of mistakes. What the reader initially stumbles upon within the opening third of the book soon morphs into a deeply dark journey for the central character, Paul. Throughout the entire book, the reader seems to be constantly brought back to wondering who this man is that we are investing in. I’m pretty sure that the industry needs to come up with a new genre for First Novel as it slides with ease through comedy, suspense and mystery.
Tumultuous is a word that comes to mind here. The pacing and tone of the novel is riotous and chaotic but thankfully one never feels disorientated. It’s also a good word to depict how the emotion is delivered throughout. As Paul tells his story, the reader is dragged (whether they like it or not) into the darkest parts of his world. It’s as if a house of horrors has been mashed up with the teacups ride – we are left dizzied by the turbulent feelings on display.
The writing on display is marvellous in its many facets. It is beautiful in places and Royle leads your mind through almost hypnotic passages and at times the author falls back on using a more blunt tone to convey some of the more horrific elements of the plot. The real majesty comes from the construction of the novel and how easy it is to read despite the origami-like concepts. For example, within the pages of First Novel are many smaller narratives, sometimes supplied by parts of the cast as they tell their back-story and one in particular is a book that one of Paul’s students is writing.
The interplay between the two is masked but soon becomes apparent and Royle breaks the forth wall, if you like, and describes the actions within the book to mirror the style in which he has written the book. I believe the word is ‘Meta’. There’s a moment towards the end that feels like a punch line or the “reveal” of a magic trick. As each fold is peeled back, Royle displays his true work for you to see.
As an aside, this is a novel for true book lovers. Royle is constantly plying his readers with mentions of the classic “Orange Penguins” or the traditional Picador spines. His character has an obsession with first novels (hence the title) and we’re given endless lists of books to look up or authors that should be explored.
First Novel is one of those books that you wish you could read within a group just so that you can debate the intricacies of the plot and the actions of the characters. It is in parts gripping and repulsive, but most of all it’s a read that will linger and you will recommend. This is exactly what I am doing here. Read it. Just read it and contemplate how powerful literature can be. What has been accomplished here is truly special.
Published by Jonathan Cape. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.