First Novel isn't a first novel at all. Nicholas Royle has now written seven, plus two novellas and a story collection. He also curates anthologies, lectures in creative writing, and edits for a publisher. Only a man with prodigious talent, not to mention a capacity for multi-tasking, would even attempt a book of such monumental ambition. For this is a novel about novels, employing the techniques and tropes of the debut. Writing in both first- and third-person? Check. An unreliable narrator? Check. Plot twists and a mid-point shift that'll have the reader flicking back and forth? Check.
First Novel starts with debut novelist Paul Kinder, working on a follow-up while leading an undergraduate creative-writing course. Its subject? First novels. Obsessed with "the classic white spines of Picadors", Paul scours the shelves of south Manchester bookshops. Seemingly resigned to the either-ors of existence, Paul reaches for something meaningful: from life, and from art. In a case of one mirroring the other, he ends up buying a new chair, the same one that appears in a newspaper feature on writers and their methods.
What begins as a straightforward riff on a writer's sense and sensibilities soon switches to the story of Ray – an airman-turned-writer drawn to the homosexual milieu of 1970s London, and his son Nicholas – while interweaving excerpts from novels-in-progress. Everyone's got a book in them, and First Novel has several.
Any reader of First Novel can be forgiven for experiencing what Paul describes, critiquing Siri Hustvedt's debut The Blindfold, as "a strange sense of déjà vu". They know what happens next, but at the same time they haven't the foggiest. This is a novel that demands to be read more than once. As for those either-ors – "how a story can be either yours or somebody else's, how you can choose either right or wrong, how it can all either be very important or not make a f*** of a lot of difference" – First Novel is either far too clever for its own good, or far too good to be a debut. Which, of course, it isn't.