At the centre of Nicholas Royle’s comic novel is a writer and literary theorist called Nicholas Royle, who is denounced, first in person, and then in print, by a young critic called Stephen Osmer. Early in the book, Royle (the author, not the character) kills off the critic mid-sentence. Shortly afterwards, Royle (the character) has a threesome with Osmer’s beautiful girlfriend, Lily (“the dark-complexioned young beauty”) and his own (beautiful, obviously) wife, Portia, whose “still pert … breasts” are “full but small”. This all takes place at a literary party at Royle’s “fine and rambling 18th-century property” near Cuckmere Haven.
And there’s more. In An English Guide to Birdwatching – as in real life – there are two writers called Nicholas Royle, their books mixed up together on Amazon as though they were one person (they seem, on at least one occasion, to have commented on one another’s books; the other Royle also contributed a key paragraph to this novel). Some of their books, and even their reviews, are mentioned in this novel, which also features several real‑life literary figures and books.
The plot concerns the possible theft, by Royle, of a short story about gulls. Here, “Gulls” is written by a retired funeral director called Silas Woodlock, and appears, credited to Royle, in a book called Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds. Woodlock happens upon a copy some months after having accidentally left his typescript in a pub, and sets out to walk to Royle’s house, intent on revenge. Murmurations actually exists in real life, and was edited by one of the two Royles.
“My work is digressive, and it is progressive too – and at the same time,” wrote Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, surely one of the models for this novel. The narrative spins off in all sorts of digressions, Royle giving us six pages on the moments between sitting down in a restaurant and ordering a meal. “We…