Surprise, Surprise

Article excerpt

First Novel

Nicholas Royle

Jonathan Cape, 304pp, [pounds sterling]16.99

Nicholas Royle's First Novel, which is really his seventh, contains a brief paean to the short story. "You can take risks that you wouldn't in a novel. How much time has the reader lost reading it? And if we get it, if our suspension of disbelief is unbroken, it's all worth it."

At the start of First Novel, Paul Kinder, a creative writing teacher, deconstructs a Kindle--quite literally, with a screwdriver. Dragged out over three pages of Royle's unremarkable prose, the scene is a torpid and predictable beginning to a story that announces its metafictional affiliations in its title. Yet the rest of the book is dense with risks and, happily, most of them pay off.

All the usual meta-checkboxes get ticked. A methodical description of Kinder's room includes a mention of an "[A.sub.4] wallet-style folder marked 'Writers' Rooms'". There is the obligatory character named Nicholas. Two writers are both preoccupied by the idea of "either-or"--either left or right, either alive or dead, "how it can all either be very important or not make a fuck of a lot of difference"--obliquely highlighting the author's omnipotence and his characters' helpless fictitiousness. (This trope is echoed by the mannequins that Kinder keeps in his study.)

Metafiction is no longer such a trendy drug, and a lot of these literary games feel hackneyed to the point of quaintness. But First Novel delivers its buzz by means of an older and much more powerful medium: plot. On page nine, Kinder is running a workshop at the university. "Pick something memorable that has happened to you in the past week involving two other people," he tells his students, "and write about it from a point of view other than your own." The exercise is anonymous; the results are distributed round the class at random and read aloud. One student writes about a crowd of young people hassling a tramp. A girl holds out a fiver. When the tramp reaches for it, she pulls it away and a scuffle ensues, ending with the tramp being pushed down a steep path. Hearing the story, Kinder realises that he was a partial witness to the same scene, which took place the previous day on the old railway line outside his house. When the workshop is over, he investigates the area and uncovers the tramp's body.

This is just the first in an intricate--yet almost always lucid--series of jinks and layerings. …