When I first saw this book, I thought, “Nicholas Royle: I’ve heard of him.” Turns out I was thinking of another Nicholas Royle, author of several novels and other works. Clearly there is no writers’ equivalent of the Equity rule which means that no two actors may share the same professional name. This means that (a) the book reviewed here is by Nicholas Royle, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, author of many academic and literary works but now a debut novelist, and (b) I am currently working on a novel of my own to be published under the name Stephenie Meyer.
Quilt is one of those books I long for but come across rarely (and, truth be told, don’t always read when I do come across them). It is strange, surprising, sui generis. Royle, in a manner as much playful as professorial, includes an afterword to his own novel, where he denounces the current literary culture.
A novel can be as ‘original’, ‘brilliant’, and whatever other admiring adjectives you fancy, it can win a ‘fiction prize’, be talked about on TV, become a movie, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the running of the programme, so long as it can be satisfactorily filtered and neutralised, so long as it passes through without making any trouble in and with language.
Music to my ears. Yet too often my own running order interferes with such books; I stumble over them in my haste to get to the next volume awaiting my attention. The danger with books which really give us something unfamiliar is that we will mistake the lack of familiarity for fundamental flaws in the structure or writing. The converse of this, however, is to give too much credit where a book does break the banks of traditional literary fiction, and miss the flaws altogether.
Quilt runs a pretty neat line between seducing the reader and slapping them across the face. The initial subject matter is bereavement – the narrator’s father is dying (“I am in his grip, he mine, here and from now on”) – which although ostensibly offputting, is of course catnip to novelists. All that emotion, the feelings, the reality! Royle doesn’t play it like that. He leaves us to bring our own emotion to the subject, and sets about dismantling his reader’s expectations.
‘Making trouble in and with language’ is how he goes about it. He explores the limitations of language and literature – exhibiting them even while displaying how they can be extended. When the narrator is taking his father to hospital for the last time, he finds that
I’m blinded: the tears are pouring out of my face. Why merely this word, tears or teardrops, but no others, like Eskimo snow lexemes? Why not a new language invented every time? What’s pouring out of my face has never happened before.
This discussion of the inability of language – and by extension literature – to express the elements of every life makes explicit the book’s modernist leanings. (When the narrator speaks of “the sudden and absolute obliteration of authority,” he is referring to the death of one’s parents, but also of the conditions driving modernist thought.) The reason why, as the narrator asks, we don’t invent a new language every time is because nobody would understand us. His response to that is to ask who really understands us anyway. There is much playing and layering of language – quilting? – as the narrator searches for the best way to express himself, or his thoughts, or the gap between his thoughts and himself. His mind puns and spins like a flywheel to divert itself from thinking about the reality of his father’s death.
Quilt is not without traditional novelistic niceties: there are lovely moments of characterisation such as when the narrator recalls that his father “never likes to be in a car unless he’s driving.” But it opens with a sneaky paradox – the narrator telling us about something he couldn’t know – and the early pages, with their wrenching account of parental decline, give way to the “meddling” Royle demands of fiction in his afterword. A discussion on rays – the flatfish – comes to dominate narrative and narrator alike, striking into the text more and more frequently until it merges entirely, culminating in a twenty-page list of words containing the letters in ‘ray’, and a strong ending which manages to both satisfy and frustrate the desire for narrative closure.
In his afterword, Royle says that “a novel wants to be a joy forever, or, let’s say, a joy-fever, a fever that resists treatment, that stays with you awhile and can come back, at once chronic and fitful.” It is the perfect description for Quilt, with its overturning qualities, its ability to stick in the head while resisting resolution, and its determination not to leave the reader feeling that the end of the text is the end of the reading experience. What my reading life needs – what the literary world needs – is more Quilts and fewer comfort blankets.