In a Roeg's gallery of double visions

Nicholas Royle, cutting-edge novelist and literary A&R man, has spliced his twin passions for cinema and for London.
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The Independent Culture

They say that death is the natural conclusion to an encounter with your doppelganger but, for Nicholas Royle, it was not until he came across the eponymous stranger that a primary strand of his new novel fell into place. The two Nicholas Royles became aware of the other's existence in 1992 when stories each had separately submitted to a literary journal were mis-mailed back. Royle corresponded with the other NR, now Professor of English at the University of Sussex, until they met in 1998. They became good friends, and are now collaborating on a fiction project: The Royle We.

They say that death is the natural conclusion to an encounter with your doppelganger but, for Nicholas Royle, it was not until he came across the eponymous stranger that a primary strand of his new novel fell into place. The two Nicholas Royles became aware of the other's existence in 1992 when stories each had separately submitted to a literary journal were mis-mailed back. Royle corresponded with the other NR, now Professor of English at the University of Sussex, until they met in 1998. They became good friends, and are now collaborating on a fiction project: The Royle We.

This is the kind of synchronicity that Royle adores. "It was a gift to me, a real case of life imitating art," he recalls. And it suggested the key device of Multiple Personality Disorder for his intricately crafted and atmospheric literary thriller, The Director's Cut (Abacus, £9.99). It also provided two characters who, sharing names, enjoy a brief and less than healthy relationship. "I like the tension between what clearly is, and what might be, autobiography," he says: "Using fiction to write about your own experience."

In his fourth novel, Royle pushes this approach further than he has previously done. He incorporates his long-standing fascination with, or addiction to, London - especially its rail networks and abandoned buildings - into a wide-ranging exploration of another abiding passion: cinema, both in its maverick film culture and its venues.

Perhaps inevitably - given this material - the eyes really do have it. The central shared pursuit is that of watching. Royle elucidates: "With one character watching another, it's a very short step from watching to following, and then to meeting; and then you've got a narrative."

Two images clarified his visualisation of this idea. "A train runs behind my house and, with the windows lit at night, it seemed to resemble a strip of celluloid. Also amber, and the idea of suspended animation, of an insect caught within it, made me think of film and what it does."

In The Director's Cut, a body is found wrapped in a 16mm print of Nicolas Roeg's film Bad Timing on a demolition site in central London. Four friends - who, in their youth 15 years earlier, had made an underground short of a man's suicide - are forced into radical revisions of past and present events, allegiances and intentions.

This group - a film critic, a trash director, a frustrated auteur and a dispatch clerk - are extreme cinephiles. They inhabit cinema as a parallel world that colours all they do, and how things are seen. They move on the cusp between film and reality, with obsession the energising agent in their negotiations between these two, constantly blurring, states. Characters reflect and amplify each other and the Tube murders of a proposed screenplay become an actuality.

Meanwhile, dispatch clerk Angelo searches for the Museum of Lost Cinema Spaces - an archive of the emotion-laden interiors of picture houses - while Frank the critic studies features portraying Heaven in the hope that he might gain an understanding of what happened to his partner. This is film as a belief system, with its own deities, temples and sacred sites.

The novel is not only a celebration of films, but also a lament for the erasure of the repertory cinema tradition and for the buildings themselves. Royle knows his stuff, and The Director's Cut can be read as a lucid primer on London's cinematic topography. There is real skill here in creating a framework that can hold, simultaneously, an accurate portrayal of the contemporary metropolis and a sense of the mythic possibilities both of the city and the cinema. "The city wouldn't be the city without cinema and fiction, without its picture houses. Even if they've gone, they're still ghostly presences," says Royle.

The author doesn't hide his debts, both filmic and literary, whether for structure or point-of-view. The presiding mentor here is Nicolas Roeg. "He's made the most affecting films I've seen," Royle says. "I love the way he constructs his narratives, playing with the time frame and yet making perfect sense." Roeg's oeuvre also underscores the atmosphere of voyeuristic intent, obsession and fecund unease that permeates the action.

But Royle speaks in his own voice, and one of the chief pleasures of the book is its tour-de-force story- telling, constructed around a deeply cinematic pattern of edits - pivotal elisions, with objects and images that reroute events.

Juggling a clutch of major characters, numerous plot-lines and a complex chronology, The Director's Cut is no dry exercise but a page-turning suspense narrative. It passes through major set-pieces (a night visit to an anatomy lab and a fatal encounter in fog, to name only two) on its journey to a building climax and an ambiguous appendix that questions - like a reel previously lost - all that has gone before.

Behind the flickering surface lies an exhilarating paean to friendship and the collaborative energies of youth, pitched against an enquiry into different forms of loss. As a meditation on the creative process that moves beyond film-making to include the writer's own practice, the novel explores the tensions between passivity and action, watching and intervention. In Royle's distinctive take, its title becomes an affirmation of the freedoms of fiction to investigate experience.

This liberty, and the related satisfaction of being read, is not something that can be taken for granted. Royle, as a tireless editor of new work, has been an unacknowledged A&R man for idiosyncratic prose. He is profoundly aware of the difficulties in getting published, and has pursued a policy of encouraging fresh talent.

"I remember how tough it was placing stories when I started writing," he says. He has edited 11 themed anthologies of short fiction, where many new writers have appeared alongside established names. In addition, he publicises the wealth of small, often self-published literary magazines and has also played a key role in enabling publication of first novels by the writers such as Conrad Williams, Chris Kenworthy and Joel Lane.

Add regular reviewing to the schedule, and you have what seems like the total strategy of a literary activist. Royle, however, insists that "it's not as calculated as it seems. It's really just the result of an enthusiasm for this material. Some of these people were not being published with anything like the enthusiasm or support they deserved, and I'm very fortunate that I can spend my working hours promoting the kind of literature I enjoy."

This promotion also extends back to a benign reclamation of ignored writers such as the late Derek Marlowe, several of whose books made it to the screen. When asked whom he would like to direct a version of his novel, Royle laughs: "Christopher Nolan comes to mind, for the structure of Following; Michael Winterbottom, for the handheld, low-grade look of Wonderland; and Chris Petit, who can do it all. And there's Roeg."

The celluloid version would work a treat - a gesture of gratitude from one medium to another for such fine, considered affection. But, in a real sense, The Director's Cut is already part of cinema's luminous tradition, in spirit and execution. It already sits waiting to be directed by the many readers that it deserves.

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