Nicholas Royle, Quilt

Posted by Matt Foley on September 23, 2010 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Nicholas Royle. Quilt. Myriad Editions, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-9562515-4-1

Reviewed by Matt Foley, University of Stirling

Nicholas Royle’s (literary critic, theorist and now novelist) debut novella Quilt (2010, Myriad Editions) is a disorienting journey into an unnamed man’s pathological experience of mourning after the death of his father. At work in the piece is a subtle and emotive handling of memory, a disruption of linear time, along with much more in the novella’s fashioning, most notably the excessive coining of portmanteaus, that sets in motion a conscious interrogation of language itself. Indeed, the prose, particularly at the beginning of the piece, is excessive and strange in order to throw the English language into relief. The narrator inherits this obsession for pulling language apart from his father. On returning to his estranged family home, while dressing his dad, who is still alive but obviously very unwell, the narrator turns to a meditation on language:

Give up the thought of the sentence, he seems to tell me, and I am in his grip, he mine, here and from now on I prop him up, help him remove his bedclothes and get him dressed, ‘stertorous’ is the wrong word but hangs in the air, a signpost to how the most ordinary thing, getting dressed, becomes impracticable fateful tangled up with words and images from a song or book, the grotesque persnicketiness of Edgar Allan Poe, the stertorous breathing of Monsieur Valdemar, figure of impossible resuscitated putrefaction. It hangs in the air like a silent spy-plane, shadowshow of gallows (p.4).

The above neatly presents in microcosm some of the key concerns that are foregrounded in the novella as a whole. Firstly, language is played with, made strange, and yet there is a sense that it is never quite sufficient to express the narrator’s idiosyncratic way of seeing the world as his mind begins to unravel and “tangle up with words and images”. Secondly, there is the allusion to the Gothic mode – in this case Edgar Allan Poe – and this foreshadows a longer, more important meditation on the nature of the Gothic much later in the novella which I will quote from shortly. Thirdly, there is the further implicit allusion – made by specifically invoking the character of Monsieur Valdemar from Poe’s ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ – to Roland Barthes’ reading of Valdemar’s infamous phrase “I am dead”. Indeed, Barthes’ Camera Lucida is explicitly dealt with further on too. Unsurprisingly, then, for a literary theorist, Royle’s novel is self aware of both the language it is employing and the literary mode it is playing with, while not afraid to invoke the theoretical. Crucially, though, after the initial tactics of disorientation, Royle also demonstrates a flair for fresh literary description and this is particularly lucid when the narrative perspective changes to that of the narrator’s long distance lover (for example, p.144). In turn, the book stages a tension between Royle ‘the novelist’ and Royle ‘the theorist’. It is clear that these two identities overlap but Royle is keen to maintain an absolute distinction in his afterward (p.152).

There is a sense that the shape and rhythm of prose of the novella form part of an overall strategy to characterise the narrator. The quotation I called on above is a disorientating meditation on the excruciating power language has over him but such confusion is fashioned for a purpose. The eccentric narrator has always been beyond the law of language. His paternal authority encourages word play and, in turn, strange portmanteaus and word games are not a straightforward transgression of absolute syntactical rules. These grammatical rules have always already been suspended. This approach fits in with Royle’s wider project as a novelist to attack language itself. In his Afterword to the novella, entitled Reality Literature, he argues that

The novel has to make trouble in and with language. It must meddle. The novelist has to aspire to a writing that figures and insists on strangeness, on what cannot be appropriated or turned over to the language police (p.155).

This trouble with and in language is made in the novella by a double movement that is at once eccentric, disturbing, strange and original. In the first movement, due to the narrator’s psyche untangling into madness, he decides after his father has died to build a giant water tank in his old family dining room that will house four manta rays: three females and one male. These rays, the narrator begins to manically theorize later in the novel, are the origin of Gothic understandings of spectrality. It is their white and spectral otherness that is the foundation for all metaphorical meditations on the nature of the ghost (p.118). Moreover, the narrator continues that

any moderately reflective reader might notice the importance of cloaks, mantles, shrouds, shawls and so on in the Gothic novel. It is necessary, however, to realise how integrally, how inextricably this motif is folded into the figure or the property of the ray, the living blanket or quilt. The bat is a red herring… (ibid).

This is a meditation on the staging of a figure of the Other that is not tamed by cliché, such as, as the narrator mentions, the Gothic bat and its association with the vampire. The continual evocation of the manta ray is not only strange but works to perversify the mourning process, aligns it with the spectral and makes for unsettling reading. This obsession with the ray, the first movement to make trouble with and in language, blocks mourning, suspends emotion and renders the mantra ray as a figure that is both farcical and strange. This is not so much a Gothic of horror or terror but one of dislocation and estrangement.

The second movement of making trouble with and in language begins to make the novella’s strategy clear. The bereaved protagonist, who is now objectified through the perspective of his distant lover’s narration, lists over the telephone a long series of words that either have syllables that are homonymous with “ray” or contain a mixture of its letters (pp.121-143). He reads the words like poetry and the figure of the ray, this strange and disorientating and perverse blockage to mourning, infects all the words in the list in an attempt to render them strange. In one sense Royle’s project here is a success: I felt that I was looking at these words in a new way and no longer took them for granted. In turn, perhaps these words will always remain a little queerer to me than before. However, there is also a sense that the narrative is suspended for too long to make space for the alphabetised list and that the intensity of the story is lost. This tension – between a politicising of the novella and the maintenance of a coherent and absorbing narrative – is one that may ultimately divide readers. Royle certainly makes a bold attempt to ‘make new’ the literary, what he calls ‘reality literature’, and indeed he often writes with poignancy and flair, but the overpowering central project of disturbing language may not appeal to readers used to a different kind of modern Gothic. “Let us turn and being again without stopping…” (p.159), Royle instructs us towards the end of the afterward to Quilt. There is certainly enough here to merit a second reading but some readers may not want the challenge.

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