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Jonathan Beckman

Sophomore Slump

First Novel: A Mystery
By Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape 295pp 16.99)

The practice of metafiction should fit no British novelist working today better than Nicholas Royle. Or at least one of them. First Novel is not written by Nicholas Royle, professor of English at Sussex University and author of Quilt (though he snags acknowledgement), but by the Nicholas Royle who has six previous novels to his name, edited Alison Moore's Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse and was laureate of this parish's Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Royle resembles the narrator of much of this book, Paul Kinder, in certain aspects: both are from the northwest and teach creative writing at a university in Manchester. Kinder, however, has published only one novel (not, it transpires, under this name). He claims to be at work on a second, though spends most of his time obsessing about dogging and aeroplane flight paths. More fruitfully, he serves as a creative stimulus to his students: one openly fantasises about him; another's anonymous exercises seem to suggest that Kinder is under surveillance. A real-life detective story impinges upon him when Lewis, his snorting, contemptuous neighbour, sows clues about the disappearance of his own family that Kinder feels compelled to pursue.

Ballard is First Novel's tutelary sprit: in the nexus of sex, death and automobiles; in the traversing of the city's edgelands where scrub and rust graft together; in the occult resonances of gargantuan, soulless exurban developments. Yet even though the strands that comprise this book curl round, with devilish craft, to devour their own tales, Royle's accomplished storytelling - unostentatious, meticulously weighted, what one might call old-fashioned - is its greatest pleasure.

Most satisfying is the novel written by a disconcertingly intense student of Paul, extracts of which intermittently appear. It follows the life of Ray, who signs up for the RAF and is sent to Zanzibar after his wife dies in pregnancy, before he experiences sexual awakening in Fifties London and moderate success as a gay poet. It movingly explores Ray's tragic inarticulacy and residual shame towards his conservative parents and heterosexual son. Quite brilliantly the story is told with the naif directness of an apprentice-work, while still exuding enough authority and control to justify its place within Royle's novel.

Royle's unshowy slyness is exemplified in his choice of names. 'Kinder', at first glance, may seem a little unusual though not obviously cratylic. But it emerges that the narrator is 'kinda' the Paul he says he is, though not entirely; is kinder to his students than he ought to be, though not to his children (seine Kinder); and his curious impulse to disassemble his near homonym, a Kindle, in the book's opening scene hints at self-destructive tendencies.

Kinder's robotically detached decision-making - 'Either I would be able to put the Kindle back together, or I would not' - reveals itself as the fatalism of a man beyond caring. But however disturbed Kinder is, his anxieties are symptomatic of the modern male writer: in the classroom, he provokes, almost inevitably, sexual desire, while also being subjected to the pity of his students, who know that he cannot support himself through his pen alone. Fecund youth inspires jealousy, as he grows sterile or unpublishable, fetishising the materials of literary production because what justifies his self-valuation is the persistence of a handful of volumes bearing his name somewhere in the world. Kinder is obsessed with the smell of books, the colours of their spines, and the Writers' Rooms series in The Guardian, which he scours for evidence that more successful authors own a copy of his long-forgotten debut, and the perfect chair that will pinion his concentration to his desk.

'Write what you know' might seem to imply a return to the romantic conception of the work of art in the unbounded emotions of its creator; but, in creative writing's pedagogy, it leads merely to the scavenging of autobiographical detritus. 'Pick something memorable that has happened to you in the past week involving at least two people and write about it from a point of view other than your own', Kinder instructs. 'I set the group an exercise that requires them to go off and find an object somewhere in the house or garden, or a view that they can photograph, that should inspire a scene in their novel-in-progress.' Nicholas Royle is wise to the gothic element of this revivification - Frankenstein looms behind the trauma of the novel's denouement - but this metaphorical body-snatching is not ghoulishly relished. Whatever its other generic gestures, First Novel is fundamentally a ghost story that haunts, not horrifies the reader.

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Jonathan Beckman's book on the Diamond Necklace Affair will be published by Fourth Estate next year.

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