Nicholas Royle: Quilt

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.


  1. Hear hear. I was re-reading Pynchon’s V recently and much of what you say seems applicable there. The thing is alive and always will be, a dancing beast that adheres to very little. I will get hold of this. I’m right fed up of stuff that ‘passes through without making any trouble in and with language.’ We need more 0.5 tog as opposed to 10 tog fiction.

  2. I’m reading V at the moment coincidentally enough. Tremendous.

    I was hoping you’d write this one up John as it’s been very much on my radar recently. There’s a lot to be said for unsettling fiction. Increasingly I find that I want my serious fiction to unsettle and to challenge. I have sf and pulp for when I want to kick back and relax; I don’t need serious fiction for that.

    What I find I often want from serious fiction is something that will make me work; something that will require me to pay attention and to think. All too often what’s on offer doesn’t do that (and of course never did, there never was a golden age).

    All that said I loved Brooklyn which is the epitome of 10 tog fiction. What can I say? I am large, I contain multitudes.

    Anyway, I shall definitely be picking this up. Did you give Kavan a go out of interest?

  3. I loved Brooklyn as well – there’s room for double-figure tog fiction (though Brooklyn is a bit troubling, wouldn’t you say?) – and I re-read Swag recently as well, which is about as comforting as it gets, to me anyway. It’s the glibly self-satisfied and chuckle-averse gubbins I can’t stand. The ‘this is important so sit up straight’ cack that demands your ‘serious’ attention. Slum-chic by-the-numbers bespoke worthiness and posturing wine-tinkler fiction.

    V is completely brilliant. Pynchon is a genius, though.

  4. Pynchon is a genius, based on what I’ve read so far anyway.

    Brooklyn is a bit troubling. If it weren’t it would be too dull to read. That said it is a bit on the tog 10 side. Still, I’m far from attacking it here. I liked it more than John did if I remember his review correctly. With enough talent subject matter, style, story, none of it matters. Toibin has talent to burn.

    Swag, remind me?

  5. I’ve got this novel on my shelf, I can’t remember why I bought it … but your clever review makes me want to read it – now! Maybe my reason for achieving it will come back to me as I read …?

  6. Agreed on Toibin – a special writer. I know that sounds a bit pat but I always think of him in the same way as William Trevor, say, or…can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head. Just writers whose work seem to speak entirely of what they’re about and to whom too much analysis seems to be slightly superfluous. Unlike Pynchon whereby enormous tracts could be written about a paragraph, just in terms of references and allusions.

    Swag: Elmore Leonard. One of his best I’d say.

  7. Pynchon’s a genius, agreed. I’ve decided to re-read some pynchon shortly but haven’t decided on the book to pick yet.

    I can’t deal with Toibin. Tried twice, abandoned twice.

    This review’s excellent though and I want to read that Royle book. Dammit.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone (and welcome, Sigrun). Does this mean I am going to have to read some Pynchon now? My only experience of him is about half of Mason & Dixon, which doesn’t seem to be regarded as a central work in his oeuvre.

    I like Tóibín but I was a bit disappointed by Brooklyn. For me his high point is The Master, which is not really cosy at all.

    Max, as it happens I read Anna Kavan’s Ice last week, and am currently thinking about how I’m going to write about it. An odd book, to be sure, and one which kept making me think of Christopher Priest (though that’s probably because the edition I read has a foreword by him…).

    It’s the glibly self-satisfied and chuckle-averse gubbins I can’t stand. The ‘this is important so sit up straight’ cack that demands your ‘serious’ attention. Slum-chic by-the-numbers bespoke worthiness and posturing wine-tinkler fiction.

    You are on sparkling form today, Lee!

  9. I need to lighten up, don’t I?!

    Pynchon: Mason & Dixon is the Pynchon book I’m least eager to go back to. But I would (almost) put my house on you liking, no, loving The Crying Of Lot 49. Which can’t be more than 150 pages long. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Max Cairnduff reviewed it (superbly) very recently-ish (unless I’m very much mistaken) and I urge it upon you.

  10. Hi Stephenie,
    Will you write a weather series entitled “Fog”, “Rain”, “Sun” and then “Rainbow” ? 🙂

    Seriously, I like what you wrote about the language failing to express one’s thoughts because the words belong to everybody and are conventions to define something. I wonder if it’s the same in Japanese or Chinese, with characters conveying images in addition to the meaning.
    Romain Gary wrote “It’s a strange thing, vocabulary, it’s always someone else’s speaking, even when it’s you.”
    He wanted to invent a language of his own, trying to twist French into syntax things allowed in Russian (his native language) but not in French. He had problems with critics because of that.

  11. I’m with Mr Monks on The Crying of Lot 49 – can’t believe you wouldn’t enjoy it. I like the stories in Slow Learner as well: if you don’t like Entropy you probably won’t go for Pynchon; if you do read Gravity’s Rainbow immediately.

    Oh, and ‘tog 10 fiction’ is inspired.

  12. seventydys – oh, indeed! Gravity’s Rainbow…sigh. I didn’t want to recommend that as I thought I’d a better chance with Lot 49. Though I completely agree….

  13. Yes, totally agree. Lot 49 is just the right length for an introduction, and it reverberates long after the book is finished to the extent that it perfectly paves the way for an intermittent addiction. V is very probably the one to do straight after as well.

    Max: what with all these advocations and your review, we must’ve swung it…

  14. Indeed, guys – if only I wasn’t committed to not buying any new books for the foreseeable future!

    Actually, I think I may have an old copy of Lot 49 knocking about the house somewhere…

  15. Wow I feel like the odd one out. Not only is Cry of Lot 49 my least favorite Pynchon novel by a pretty wide margin, but I also think Mason & Dixon is his best, by a much slimmer margin. I’ve been too timid to review any Pynchon books, though, so I can’t back up my opinion with one of those.

    Anything that gets you reading Pynchon, though, is fine with me!

  16. When I first saw this review I thought, “Nicholas Royle: I’ve never heard of him.” I have now, thanks John it sounds well worth a look. Interested in your thoughts on Kavan as well.

    I’ll add my voice to the general approbation for Lot 49. Unfortunately I moved straight onto Gravity’s Rainbow and promptly hit a wall. I also have Mason & Dixon (unread) so I might try that before going back to Rainbow….I’ll consider V depending on Max’s take.

    Literature “tog”….nice one.

  17. dear John,

    a really fascinating review. although i am annoyed by the people who have turned this into an arena for discussing Thomas Pynchon i am now going to do something similar and say that the excerpt from the author, about the novel wanting to be a fever that resists treatment, makes me think instantly of the only book i’ve read in my adult life that has had as profound an effect on me as the first novels i read as a child, and that’s Georges Perec’s ‘W or The Memory of Childhood’. and yet, precisely because ‘W’ is a fever that resists treatment – and, often, resists even basic understanding, as it is strung through with so many ‘fundamental flaws’ that it often appears to be written by a first-timer with too much to say – i have a very hard time recommending it.

    in any case (and i am now attempting to distinguish myself from the Pynchon people), my point is that readers can tolerate open-endedness only to a certain degree before the book becomes a ‘poorly executed’ mess. at the same time these open-ended works are often the most powerful. so what do we do as readers when the things that are ‘best’ for us also taste the worst?

    anyways, keep up the good work.

  18. I’m part of the Pynchon people. I feel so proud.

    Quilt ended up being among my February purchases. Thankfully I already have Ice so there’s no risk of John selling me that one too.

  19. Some rather rushed thoughts…

    Well, I went out and bought Quilt after reading your review (or rather didn;t go out: I bought it from The Big Green Bookshop – which does appear still to be in existence… support them if you live near Wood Green in north London, which I don’t) and enjoyed it, by and large. It’s certainly shouting out in that quiet way some books have to be immediately read again, to see if I can read it on a deeper level the second time around.

    It challenges you to read it with a dictionary to hand – even when it provides the etymology of a word, you will find yourself doubting the honesty of it. Likewise, did Socrates and Meno really discuss the ray as a philosophical concept? I don’t know, and I don’t really want to know – if I looked it up, somehow, the book would have won. It’s the loveliness of the thought of it, accompanied by its utter implausibility, that makes it work.

    The book is, basically, weird. Its continual though never predictable switching between registers, styles and narrators makes its unnerving to read. On the one hand, there is an element of Joycean, punning linguistic Tourette’s that I found annoying (as surely I was supposed to). But then Royle can fashion a standalone killer sentence – “he becomes aware that time has slowed down to a catastrophe”, or “the brilliant sunshine is inexplicably smacked on the back of the head” – to describe a dark cloud moving obscuring the sun.

    And, after all, it ends with a scene, or an image, or a moment, or a denouement, that is so fantastic, so horribly inevitable, that it seems to expand and fill the whole space of the novel. The whole novel is really the laying of the conceptual ground for the final image – in way it’s the literary equivalent of the first time you saw Damien Hirst’s ‘Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ – if it’s possible to think back to a time when seeing that would and could have been an awe-inspiring experience.

    Perhaps I’m on a loser trying to argue that a comparison with Hirst is meant to be a positive thing, but there you go. To rephrase: the novel is a conceptual work that operates by organising the reader’s response so as to guarantee their appreciation of the vast luminence of that final image. It’s reminding me somehow of Don DeLillo’s ‘The Body Artist’, for a reason that would take far too long to formulate here… time to go off and think…

  20. The book is, basically, weird.

    Yes. And sometimes annoying. I found though that the annoying things faded in memory when I started writing about it – perhaps because it’s the richer stuff you think about when you start actively thinking about a book – and I was certainly happy that the book was no longer than 150 pages (and that 20 or so of those were a long list of single words).

    Most of all, it is memorable, partly because of its weirdness but also because of its originality and beauty. And that is a rare enough quality these days.

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