Paul Kinder, the main character of First Novel, is the author of one novel, long out of print, and a teacher of creative writing in a university in the north-west of England. Nicholas Royle, the author of First Novel, has written six other novels along with a collection of short stories, is the editor of far too many things to list here, and a teacher of creative writing in a university in the north-west of England. In First Novel, the fictional Paul Kinder is either researching his second, breakthrough novel, or he’s killing time having sex in cars. In First Novel, the authorial Nicholas Royle, has either produced the first great creative writing course novel or he’s having great fun messing with the heads of everyone involved in university creative writing courses, himself included. Or, to take a step beyond the dualities of choice that litter the book, it might not be a simple case of either/or.
First Novel :Either you’ll get it, or you won’t.
The novel opens with Kinder dismantling a Kindle in what the reader most likely first assumes is simply a thinly veiled metaphor for the sort of deconstruction of fictional texts expected the students in the First Novels unit course Kinder leads or possibly an image of Kinder’s own disconnection and emptiness. It is only upon reaching end of the novel’s fiendishly circuitous plot, that the true relevance of the opening becomes apparent. Kinder is man obsessed, with the first novels that make up the reading list of the eponymous course, with his collection of white-spined classic Picadors, and with the Guardian Writers’ Rooms series. He scours the photographs accompanying each column for a glimpse of his own first novel, compulsively noting which writers have the same chair, which have the same desk, desperate to know who is reading what. At night he drives the suburban streets and dual carriageways of south Manchester, visiting the supermarket car parks and lay-bys crouched under the shadow of landing aircraft. It soon becomes clear, as the navigation-lights of Kinder’s past slowly begin to fade into view, that passenger jets are not the only thing on final approach.
Interspersed with Kinder’s story is that of Raymond Cross, beginning with his days stationed on Zanzibar with the RAF, before moving on to his years as a poet in London during the late-50s/early-60s. This narrative, the work of one of Kinder’s students, traces not only Ray’s life, but that of his son and his adopted-grandson, moving forward towards the present even as Paul’s thread delves deeper into his dark past. Meanwhile, Paul’s obsessive behaviour has him compulsively investigating the past of a man he meets at a friend’s barbecue. A man whose story appears to bear a striking resemblance to his own.
The addition of real people, both famous and infamous, into the narrative blurs the edges of each thread, until the reader, like Kinder, is struggling to maintain a grip on what is real and what is fiction. Royle deftly orchestrates each revelation, suspending any disbelief the twists and turns of the plot might incline the reader toward by grounding each story in specific detail. The real streets of south Manchester in particular, from the dual carriageways and motorway junctions, to the posh suburban streets where TV presenters live, to the abandoned railway cuttings and riverside paths, form a solid base of reality into which the fictional worlds Royle creates can merge without the reader’s spell breaking under the strain. By the final page a careful reader might just be able to navigate their way around the real Manchester however unfamiliar they might be with the area in reality.
Reading First Novel as a creative writing student of the author takes an already metafictional experience and turns it up to eleven. The tutorial sessions are instantly recognisable and the various projects Kinder’s students are working on will bring a smile to the face of anyone with experience of teaching or studying on such courses. Having attended a course residential on which Royle was a tutor, the Lumb Bank section could not help but take on a extra resonance for me. Royle using his experiences as a tutor to bring a verisimilitude to these scenes and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t heard some of it before from Royle’s own mouth. The humour of these sections provides a much needed tonal counterpoint to the novel’s darker aspects.
In a small but key moment toward the end of the book, Kinder finishes reading a copy of Siri Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold. He immediately goes back and rereads the first page of the book and only then does he realise ‘how clever and sly the author has been.’ It is a moment in which Royle audaciously lays his cards on the table (face down, admittedly – the novels key reveal is still yet to take place) and tells the reader in case they did not already know and in the frankest of terms, that all in his story may not be as it first appears. I defy anyone completing First Novel not to turn back to the opening and realise how cleaver and sly and, indeed, ambitious Royle has been.