by Nicholas Royle
149 pages, Myriad
Review by Pat Black
A man's father dies. After the funeral he embarks on a project to kit the old man's house out with a massive aquarium housing rare marine rays. His long-distance relationship girlfriend engages in both the grieving process and the aquaculture project with a mixture of sympathy and helplessness.
That's just about all of the plot of Nicholas Royle's Quilt, a bizarre, effervescent novel that plays with the form in ways I haven't seen for quite some time. It's an experiment, a curiosity and - though I didn't realise this until I read the equally-odd afterword - a stirring manifesto addressing the future of the novel itself.
Quilt's narrative shifts on us unexpectedly, going from the grieving son hoping to sort out his father's affairs, to the girlfriend; from a first-person perspective to a second-person narrative addressing the man directly. The story is at first interwoven with recollections of the man's father and his previous family life. The mother, dead two years previously, appears as a ghost. There's a reference to a brother who drowned, which I suspected might give us a clue as to why the male narrator is so obsessed with rays, those funny flappy fellas of the deep. But thankfully, he lets the information rest where it is and trusts us, the gullible, to draw the comparisons.
Communication forms a big part of the book, with the narrator phoning his girlfriend to tell her about his own life and obsessions - and often pulling the wool over our eyes, especially during an audacious 20-page "dictionary poem". This piece is composed of an alphabetical list of seemingly unrelated words. The narrator ends this performance by saying: "I was making it up as I went along."
If that sounds infuriating, be warned - this is a stylistically challenging novel. The author loves words, he rolls around with them, he plays with them, he gorges himself on them and occasionally he beats us with them. Royle's lapses into poetry, nonsense phrases, prosody and the simple melody of language is sometimes a joy to behold. It recalls David Mitchell's lyrical bravado in some of his novels. But while Mitchell keeps his more avant garde sensibilities on a tight leash, Nicholas Royle lets his run free. Sometimes, they frighten the children and crap on your lawn. If you have any threshold for experimental prose then this book almost certainly crosses them.
It could be said that in a way the author has disappeared up his own arse; fast, blast, I'm parsed, never sparse, a Spartan in tartan praying for St Martin - 'twas such a blue parting.
That might give you a flavour.
But do check this novel out; like Myriad's other releases this book has an assured seal of quality from the very first line (something Royle very cheekily reminds you of in the afterword, just in case you weren't paying attention - like me). In a world where our very language is being appropriated by advertising, propaganda and whatever new technologies can do to mangle it, Royle asserts that the novel has to survive by adapting, staying fresh... and undergoing bizarre metamorphoses.