From the very beginning of this book the reader embarks on a fictional journey that feels distinctly different from any they may have had before. Language in all its strangeness and beauty comes to the fore, whilst at the same time the very human story is movingly conveyed. The tale is about the profound nature of the everyday, about emotional events that every reader will experience at some time in their lives. But it is also funny and intellectual. It engages the reader’s thoughts, challenges them, calls for them to think about the very language they read and speak and inhabit. This is an inventive, risky piece of writing, which succeeds because of the way in which it combines flights of imagination with the sense of a powerful emotional reality.
I suppose Quilt qualifies loosely as a novel, in the sense that it has characters (really just the two), time more-or-less flows forward in linear fashion, and the author shows a grudging nod to such plot niceties as beginning, middle, and end. However, it’s also free-association stream-of-consciousness poesis, in which the writer gives full rein to his obvious infatuation with ontological wordplay.
The book starts out as a reasonably coherent if lyrical tale about a man dealing with his father’s demise, but quickly develops a Kafka-esque quality as the protagonist waxes weird on the philosophical and theological import of…wait for it…stingrays. As it happens, I have a thing for sharks and their compressed cousins myself, so was delighted by the professor’s unexpected dive into the philological murk of our subconscious substrate; however, crafty readers hoping for allusions to actual quilting will be much surprised, as mantuas are masked by mantas, and purls passed over for pearls.
The brief Afterword suggests some very interesting ways of thinking about fiction today, what it can do and what it might do. It also prompts a rethinking about Quilt itself.
Royle’s critical work is justly famous and has always had a kind of inventiveness more usually associated with literary writing. In Quilt he takes this creative energy to the level,as Helene Cixous comments on the back cover, of mythmaking. It’s an exciting development for English novel-readers.
Four stars, for reminding us that syntax is our servant, not master, and that words were created expressly to share thoughts, feelings and dreams which could not otherwise be communicated simply by pointing to rock, and grunting.