Nicholas Royle's seventh novel plays to the literati, and does so cunningly, for what bookworm wouldn't like to read about Paul Kinder? Royle's protagonist is a Manchester-based lecturer in creative writing who obsesses over Writers' Rooms, the regular Guardian newspaper feature that quizzes famous novelists about their workspaces and the accoutrements therein.
The gentle laughs to be had there - Kinder seems dubious of Andrew O'Hagan's claims regarding the Dickens-related provenance of his desk - usher in a complex, meticulously plotted story that's ultimately dark enough to take in infanticide. We also learn why Kinder studies the photographs accompanying Writers' Rooms so closely: he is forlornly scanning the shelves of Amis, Mantel et al for a copy of his first and only novel, a book his ex-wife thought "macabre" and the publishers who passed on it called "overwritten" and "too weird".
One could imagine some readers levelling that last criticism at this book, and the parallels between Nicholas Royle and his fictional lead are interesting. Royle is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and, like Kinder, he has a declared interest in first novels. It's there, pretty much, that the similarities end. The more we learn about Kinder, the more we realise this is a good thing. Royle's last novel, Regicide, concerned a record shop owner who miraculously finds himself in a grim otherworld. First Novel, too, blurs fantasy and reality. The author also plays various metafictional games that require careful parsing if the reader is not to become disorientated. Only some way into the book do we realise that a parallel, episodic narrative concerning Raymond Cross - an RAF serviceman stationed on Zanzibar who witnesses a horrific accident - is a piece of work penned by one of Paul Kinder's students.
This fact facilitates the eventual dovetailing of the book's two seemingly disparate narratives - a feat that Royle handles expertly. His crafty spadework with back-story and layering makes his satisfying reveals near impossible to guess, and along the way he asks interesting questions about identity and the angst brought on by life's endless choices. Two sections of the book are prefaced by quotes from the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
The playful opening scene finds Kinder prising apart a Kindle, that e-reader device that regularly splits the room. It's been gifted to Kinder, but he's in Luddite revolt, for this is a man who has fetishised the spines of Picadors and Penguins; a man attuned to the aromatic pleasures of the printed page.
He lives alone in South Manchester with his cat, Cleo. Initially, we think he's just a lonely fortysomething who is passionate about literature and somewhat ambivalent about the worth of the classes he teaches, but Royle slowly rolls out dark Hitchcockian details. Why doesn't Kinder report the death of a local tramp whose demise he suspects one of his students might be implicated in? Why is he so irked when his neighbour's kids laugh at the mannequins he keeps for company in his study?
Kinder tells us he's particularly interested in first novels "that have been lost or suppressed or never followed up". This leads him down some rather select avenues. He bitterly reports that his proposed piece on French author Vincent de Swarte's Pharricide has been rejected by various literary editors, noting "few are interested in articles about untranslated foreign-language novels … fewer still if the book in question is about a psychopathic loner with an interest in taxidermy". We are reminded of these lines much later when Kinder strokes the stuffed fox's head his father gifted him as a child after running over the beast during a family outing.
The book's other, much more important maguffins are just as deftly embedded, but Kinder's irritating and sinister neighbour, Lewis - a man he turns out to have rather a lot in common with - seems somewhat shoehorned into the plot, and the way he gets Kinder to act requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Then again, Royle's blurring of reality means the normal rules of cause and effect need not apply here.
As we lift the lid on Kinder's failings and predilections, we also learn more about the aforementioned Raymond Cross. At first Royle's dips into this B-story are distracting; annoying even, but in the third section of the book, subtitled The Sniper, he dedicates many more pages to Cross and his story starts to grip, too. Now a middle-aged, moderately successful poet living in London, Cross is terminally ill, but has managed to rebuild his relationship with Nicholas, the son he left behind to be raised by his grandparents. When the goodbyes are said and Nicholas and his girlfriend Liz adopt Johnny, a son of their own, First Novel's terrains slowly start to converge.
Meanwhile it transpires that Kinder wrote his first novel while still living with his wife Veronica and their two children. It's no spoiler to point out that Veronica's discovery of his affair with a work colleague triggers Kinder's descent into darkness. Royle writes brilliantly about the couple's growing estrangement. "There was a cadence of indifference in her voice that crushed my unrealistic hopes of early rapprochement," notes Kinder.
There's a mischievousness and black humour about First Novel that shouldn't be overlooked. It's funny that one of the few popular writers Kinder likes is Ian McEwan ("especially the [dark] early stuff"), and it's playfully irreverent that the book's odd and startling denouement should unfold during a writers' retreat at Lumb Bank, the real-life 18th century mill owner's house that once belonged to Ted Hughes.
Though the book's jacket blurb bills it as part murder mystery, part campus novel, and a meditation on identity, Royle also has fun with that most writerly of traits, procrastination.
He knows that many who aspire to write novels would rather read Writers' Rooms than confront the blank page; that the old "longhand or PC?" question so beloved of newbies meeting their heroes is ultimately inconsequential. When Kinder buys a brand of chair the same as the one Geoff Dyer, Siri Hustvedt and others write in, he still can't shift his writer's block. Through Kinder, Royle is also able to air some views about writers and the teaching of creative writing that he may or may not agree with. "AJ is one of those people, increasingly few in number, who thinks that because you are a writer you know something about the world," says his protagonist of one of his neighbours. We also learn that the wisdom Kinder imparts to his students can be reduced to three main points: "Carry a notebook. Read your work out loud. Go for long walks."
First Novel carves its own unique path, and you may find yourself continuing to puzzle it out days after you've finished reading. It's a strangely haunting book that defies categorisation. If Royle and his students at Manchester Metropolitan University ever get around to discussing it, I'd love to be a fly on the wall.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.