Rustam is an Uzbek taxi driver living in Cairo. One night he finds a guy in the street who he thinks is dead, but he's not. The guy is called Mouloud. Rustam takes Mouloud home to his wife, who is not named because she's not important to the story. Or, more to the point, her story is not important to the narrator of this unusual novel – if novel it is. She's just "Mouloud's wife". Rustam's wife, Nigora, meanwhile, is very important. Equally important is Mouloud's friend Ahmad, who wants to see Nigora naked.
All this comes to us via the unnamed narrator, darting around London from juice bar to lesbian hipster joint, who gets it, or some of it, from Mouloud's taxi driver brother, Faryaq. How much he gets from Faryaq and how much he makes up is not clear, but that doesn't really matter, either. The narrator wants to construct his own Arabic novel, "a zoom of pure joyfulness".
The stories of Nigora, Ahmad and Rustam are played out against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, specifically events in Tahrir Square. To reflect the nature of revolution and the multitude of stories, the book looks like a typesetter's revenge. Digressions, factual asides and parenthetical remarks slice across the page or appear upside down, even running across extra pages that unfold from the main body of the book.
While the initial impression is of a bold formal experiment with the polyphonic novel, once it becomes evident that for the most part the inserts work as unanchored footnotes, it also becomes clear that this is a surprisingly conventional novel – if novel it is. There's nothing wrong with it being conventional, but it is tricked out to look tricksy, while the trick is that it's not.
The publisher believes that books should be "as visually interesting as the stories they tell". It's certainly a beautifully produced book. It surely misses the point to complain that the appearance is distracting, but the narrow columns produce lots of bad breaks.
Thirlwell is funny on class structures in revolutionary hipness, and there's a good joke about smoking ("I was smoking so much whenever I saw him that I considered taking up smoking again for real"). I can't work out whether to scratch or shake my head over the number of joints the narrator visits in his metropolitan peregrinations: there's the lesbian hipster joint, a "Cantonese joint set up in an old pie and mash shop", and an Indian champissage joint on the Seven Sisters Road.
Ultimately, it's a clever book. The way revolution is immediately followed by counter-revolution is echoed neatly in a series of apparent contradictions: "Everywhere she went in this apartment Rustam was there and he was not there"; "And now he had said something which in retrospect perhaps revealed that what he was feeling was never what he was feeling". There's room in the book's 80-odd pages for theory and philosophy, as well as a throng of artists and intellectuals. In the space of a page there are references to Kundera, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Jean-Marie Straub and Engels. Just when the whole crazy footnote thing starts to remind you of Nicholson Baker, up he pops.
Nicholas Royle's new novel, 'First Novel' (Jonathan Cape), will be published next year