From its title onwards, First Novel plays fast and loose with the truth: it’s actually Nicholas Royle’s seventh novel. Its central character, creative writing tutor Paul Kinder, sometimes known as Paul Taylor, is the author of one, long-forgotten novel, however, and also teaches a course on first novels. He’s especially interested in those by writers who never published a second, or who – like John Banville and Philip Pullman – went on to distinguished careers in which they disowned their debut. “Sometimes they’re the best thing an author will ever write”, he explains to a student who questions his overriding interest. “They don’t know this at the time, of course, and some cases maybe they never see it.”
When he’s not teaching, or failing to write a second novel, Paul scrutinises clippings from the Guardian newspaper’s (real-life) series Writers’ Rooms – staring at photographs of successful authors in the rooms where they work, desperate to spot a copy of his own first novel on the desk or shelves in these photographs. This is funny, skewering stuff; better yet are Paul’s attempts to “analyse” these writers’ success purely in terms of the tools they use – noting how many of the authors are shown writing at the same style of desk, for instance, or sitting in the same ergonomic chair. (Inevitably, he purchases one of these chairs for himself.) It’s funny and faintly tragic – like someone thinking he can master the French language by eating a lot of croques-monsieurs. These gags, which work by highlighting the uncanny absence at their centre, tell us much about our central character. The fun comes from the unselfconscious humourlessness of the obsessive behaviour. I was reminded of the obsessional confessionals of Geoff Dyer – this is high praise – then taken aback when Dyer himself was mentioned in First Novel: he’s one of the Writers’ Rooms authors who uses that omnipresent ergonomic chair.
All those late-90s silver Penguin classics look so nice lined up together!
I was also charmed – then a little panicked – by Paul’s obsessive arranging of his books according to spine colour and design, a habit I’ve been known to engage in myself. All those late-90s silver Penguin classics look so nice lined up together! (This is one obsession First Novel’s designers picked up: the jacket is a witty homage to the old-style white-spine/black-text Picador paperbacks Paul loves, and whose passing, around the time the Penguin Classics’ spines went silver, I mourn too.)
There’s more to First Novel than just this very pleasurable guddling around in the writerly psyche. For one thing, there’s Paul’s other obsessive recreational interest – driving female companions out to airfields and having sex in the parked car as aircraft come in to land, so close that passengers glancing down from the plane’s windows might glimpse the canoodling, but more importantly, so close that the ferocious noise of the plane overhead obliterates, for a few moments, everything going on inside the car.
The book’s subtitle is A Mystery, which undersells it: I counted at least four separate, interlinked mysteries the book unravels. As well as the explanation for Paul’s sexual proclivities, there’s a mystery around his inscrutable friend Lewis; the mystery of Grace, the most talented writer in Paul’s class, who has an uncomfortable interest in her teacher; and finally, a little superfluously I felt, a possible murder mystery in which, again, Paul’s students (or even Paul himself) might be implicated. Additionally, there is playful ambiguity about what’s “real” in the book’s context: alongside Paul’s first-person narrative there is a parallel family history, which proves to be the work of one of Paul’s students: it’s presented as diegetically “real”, then downgraded to “fiction”, and then – ah, but that would be telling. The relevance of this parallel narrative – which starts, significantly, with a terrifying aircraft-related accident – to Paul’s own is another mystery which will be solved towards the end of the book, as Royle brings everything together in a forty-page burst of revelations. The book manages not to buckle beneath the weight of all these explanations, but the reader does, slightly; at least one mystery among this fistful might have been dispensed with. (I’d vote out the story of the inscrutable Lewis, Paul’s “frienemy” whose irritating laugh – Ksssh-huh-huh – is embedded in almost every line of dialogue he has, duly irritating the reader in turn, and whose secret I felt was obvious more or less from the outset. Not to give it away, but there are a finite number of tricks at the postmodern novel’s disposal, and Lewis’s secret is among the most often-played.)
As it stands, Grace has something of the air of the super-villain about her, albeit a villain whose insanely convoluted masterplan goes off without a hitch
There’s a lot to enjoy in First Novel, and to suggest that much of that is over and above the mysteries of the plot is not intended as a criticism. To the ex-student, the campus novel offers a happy blend of good and bad nostalgia: you’re charmed and you cringe in equal measure. More specifically, as a former creative writing student, I found myself glad I’d never had to endure a “residential”, as Paul’s students do here, going away with their tutor for a weekend of writing exercises and Dark Revelations. I wasn’t convinced by the inarticulacy of one of the students – all “Dude!”s and “Coolio”s, the satire just a little broad – and the novel’s final-act twist depends slightly on fudging the likelihood of a particular student enrolling on precisely the right academic course to enact her revenge plot; a little more on how Grace’s application to join his course had struck Paul as a remarkable piece of writing, say, could have smoothed this.
As it stands, Grace has something of the air of the super-villain about her, albeit a villain whose insanely convoluted masterplan goes off without a hitch. The book ends on an ambiguous note, however, nuanced without being left entirely open. Two ongoing motifs threaded into the book – Paul’s sense that life consists simply of binary “either/or” options, and his lack of empathy (in an early scene, he reports, “My finger hovers above [the Kindle], as if reluctant to touch it”, as if the digit in question is nothing to do with the consciousness that observes is) – are resolved cleverly and unfussily. At the end of the book, there might be hope for these characters, or else what they’re guilty of will never let them be free – but the choice is not an unsatisfying one. In any case, there’s a clue in the opening scene that the binary system by which Paul often feels himself constrained isn’t actually as polarised as he believes. Having dismantled his Kindle, he gazes on the discombobulated components and considers the ensuing choice: “Either I would be able to put the Kindle back together, or I would not.” In the event, though, Paul simply sweeps the parts into the bin and moves on. There’s always a third way. C