Book: The Matter of the Heart by Nicholas Royle

Thursday Book

Kim Newman
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:38

Nicholas Royle's third novel turns on the physical and emotional anatomy of the heart, taking the big pump as a model for its at-first imperceptible plot. The book sets out its influences like blue plaques, drawing on the psychic map-making practised by Iain Sinclair and M John Harrison, both of whom provide blurb encomia and are evoked in the text.

Royle's narrator is an authorial substitute called Chris, who lives through sections lifted from a diary and is given to delivering very funny editorial- like rants about the tedium of Louis Malle films, the terrifying unreliability of air travel, or the virtues of various routes through London traffic. These are clearly written from the heart, but the device turns out to be a daring strategy of candour that initially misleads the reader into ignoring the trap-like coils of the story. Like the snake which emerges as a major image, the plot starts loose and then constricts. The plunge into autobiography is a cunning misdirection.

Like Royle's earlier novels (Counterparts, Saxophone Dreams), The Matter of the Heart seems like a stitching-together of a batch of the disturbing short stories for which he is best known. It moves away from first person to provide vignettes which constantly force you to reassess what Chris is telling you. Nevertheless, this is a breakthrough book for Royle: it has the confidence to seem bitty and discursive at first, but pulls everything together in a manner at once satisfying and surprising.

Chris describes a series of incidents and locations in and around London. They make links which turn the capital into a picture of a huge heart, with its own centre located in a room in a Victorian hospital which has become a hotel. In this space, an arrogant surgeon once carried out the first heart transplant, and later an American author miraculously survived a fatal heart attack. Between these two heart events another ritual of violence and renewal took place, involving a philosophically inclined waiter-pornographer-climber.

Gradually revealed and powerfully imagined, this occurrence turns out to be the heart of the novel, pumping elements of plot as far away as Western Australia and Dartmoor. Another clever feint is a signposted discussion of the two versions of the film The Vanishing. This seems to foreshadow the twist that powers the last third of the book, and transforms it for a while into something like a suspense thriller.

Royle at once evokes the fictional world of M John Harrison (author of The Course of the Heart) and goes beyond it. By foregrounding such influences, he is able to stake out his own space and establish himself as a writer on a level with his models rather than "in the tradition" of them. The project of this novel is not so much to make sense of the many aspects of the word "heart" as to reveal the wondrously intricate and interdependent components of a muscle, a city and a complex psycho-geography.

Kim Newman

Abacus, pounds 9.99

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