My review of John Burnside’s second collection of short stories Something Like Happy
has been posted on Review 31. This was my first Burnside despite having meant to read both his fiction and poetry for ages. After reading this collection I really want to get hold of his novels and collections.
The person who denies himself and sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite for the infinite; he is secure enough. The tragic hero gives up what is certain for what is still more certain, and the eye of the beholder rests confidently upon him.
Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling
Nicholas Royle’s First Novel somehow contrives to be a thriller, a tragedy, a study of voyeurism, writing, grief, the loss of agency and the question of suicide, all whilst being something we still tend to call ‘literary’. I imagine that many reviews have included something like the following irresistible point: this is manifestly not a first novel. The other term I can’t imagine having been neglected by the thoughtful reviewer is ‘meta’. I will say right away that I think this is a great, strange, sad, joy of a book. First Novel is indeed centrally concerned with the business of writing and its relation to life. One bleeds into the other and each diminishes for Royle’s protagonist. Paul Kinder is an author and creative writing tutor with a fetish for sex in cars beneath the flight paths of passenger jets. In car parks he tries to escape the existential enervation with which he is struck. The creative writing course is central to novel and the work of two of his students, Helen and Grace, makes its way into the novel. Grace’s writing becomes increasingly significant as it develops, another voice with its own agenda communicated via her novel, almost pushing Paul’s voice to the side at times.
‘It’s no fun when you’re tossing and turning and a great big bloody jumbo jet goes over,’ she says, her hands planted assertively on her hips.
‘Well, I beg to differ,’ I say, just about able to remember Susan Ashton. Her Gold GTI. Hatton Cross Tube station car park.
Paul searches through The Guardian’s ‘Writers’ Rooms’ series for a glimpse of his novel, picking up along the way the accoutrements of a successful writer, or so he thinks. ‘The way things look is important’, he says. The deceptiveness of appearances is ultimately a key aspect of First Novel. ‘A Mystery’ runs the subtitle, and there are several running through the novel. Paul seems to wish to appear to be a writer as much, if not more so, as he wants to be one. Why is he so fascinated by first novels that he teaches an entire course on them? How did his wife and children die? Why does his acquaintance Lewis wish to manipulate his interests? The unravelling of these mysteries is masterfully handled so as to disorientate the reader. Paul’s voice reflects the careful cataloguing of books he is so fond of. He is also strikingly future-averse, almost always speaking in the present or of the past. This is seemingly related to his inability to handle binaries, choices, as the following (edited) quotation shows.
That evening, I am returning from Tesco with a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, thinking about the student who came to see me after Helen. His name is either Lawrence Duncan or Duncan Lawrence. Either or. I can never remember which…
…it is not forgetfulness that is to blame. It is rather that I know both variations are possible and so I find it impossible to distinguish between them. Like hot and cold. Sometimes I will look at the taps on a washbasin, even ones affixed with a blue or red spot, and I don’t know which one to turn.
…Life and death is another. There are numerous well-known public figures who could be alive or may be dead.
…It’s not that I think there is little difference between being alive and dead. It is that I cannot distinguish between the two. Almost as if I cannot choose.
Royle’s use of the either-or formula amounts to an appropriation of the title of Kierkegaard’s first work, a satire on Hegelian synthesis. (Kierkegaard is quoted at the beginning of several of the novel’s sections). Kierkegaard’s central concern was the manner in which the apparent opposition of the voyeuristic, nihilistic, manipulative aesthetic and the social, dutiful ethical could in fact be held together dialectically, annulled, and synthesised in a higher unity – the religious. Perhaps that is another part of the multifaceted ‘mystery’ of the title. There are intimations of the religious throughout First Novel, but Royle doesn’t allow that synthesis and transcendence. Paul belongs to this world: Royle quotes Borges at one point ‘things happen only in the present’. Recall Paul’s present-tense narration: his transcendent is the future. But the future is somehow blocked. Why should such a man be interested in taxidermy, seeking to transcend death, refusing its end? It is because, for Paul, there is no transcendence that the either-or becomes a dissolution, a loss of self and agency: he cannot choose. Until he does. Which is the great sadness of First Novel.
It was either going to be all right or it wasn’t. In fact, no, it wasn’t. It was never going to be all right.
It wasn’t all right.
One of the questions at the heart of First Novel is the tragedy and tension of observation and its supply of material for literary production. It’s not simply that Paul is the aesthete of Either/Or – that he performs and watches performances by others – he is also a manifestation of the ethical, the objective, for that experience is putatively the foundation of his work: work which becomes objective because a novel amounts to a statement about the world. ‘I suppose I think first novels are important because it’s the first thing the author says about the world.’ This is why Paul’s pseudonymous authorship of his first novel becomes significant. It amounts to a measure of his inauthenticity. Writing is an act. Either-or won’t cut it.
Though, arguably, most of that is subtext.
First Novel is far more compelling than any paraphrase of its concerns could be. I have neglected to mention a central aspect of the book and will continue to do so: there is no way I am spoiling that. It knocked me sideways in the best possible way. Rest assured that Royle refuses easy resolutions and wrong-foots the reader repeatedly. The handling of the last third of the novel is simply superb as it races towards its conclusion without ever feeling anything but controlled. The ‘mystery’ of the title is, in many ways, the novel itself: both how it manages to be so good, and what on Earth it all means. What I can say for sure is that this is a progressive, intensely contemporary, brilliant work which challenges the easy certainties of the traditional novel. It should win prizes. Read it.
First Novel is out now from Jonathan Cape.
My thanks to Jonathan Cape for this review copy.