Nicholas Royle is coming to Lancaster (with Tom Fletcher) in a couple of weeks, and so in anticipation I read Antwerp, his most recent novel, published by Serpent's Tail. And it really tested me as reader.
I'm not used to reading thrillers, and the demands they make on your patience are quite extraordinary. There were times I found I couldn't keep up with my excitement/plot greed.
There are several narrative devices, which at times become very short and rapid-fire in delivery, switching between unnamed misfit, his persuer, and obsessive film-maker, who are all connected by a series of murders, and the Belgian director Harry Kumel. And when they became compressed like this I couldn't stop, could barely slow down, for the tension.
It is the extraordinary detailed interventions of Kumel's films that managed to put my brakes on so I didn't gallump my way through without fully appreciating the characters, the city, the language - favourite sentence, describing a city view (paraphrased, I'm afraid): "He got an impression, and it was more Van Gogh than Monet". And there are tons of these quick fire quips that ensure I rolled the pace, the energy that rises from the pavements and people of the city, around in my head before falling through the next anxious-ridden chapter.
So, while the story is a gruesome one of serial murders, Royle doesn't go into the same blanching detail that spoilt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for me. The horror is brilliantly counterbalanced by the humour in the language, and, perhaps more so, by Royle's love of visual art - through the Kumel films, the photography of Henk Van Rensbergen, and the paintings of Paul Delvaux. I felt these not only added a context to the novel, nor introduced me to new work (although they did), they also got me thinking (again) about the relevance of art to the everyday, to the formulation of our emotions, and the acts that follow.
I am very much looking foward to hearing what Nicholas will read in May, assured that whatever he chooses, it'll be rich in cultural context, wide ranging in social reference and relevance and, probably, a little bit funny.