The last novel standing of 2017’s “must read/review” pile is M.J. Nicholls’ The House Of Writers, and it proves to be apt as it meant the year was bookended by two novels which shared a subject but differed in approach, (the first being David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device).
Both novels look at the importance of art in society, but where Keenan creates a mythical musical scene for 1980’s Airdrie, The House Of Writers is set in a dystopian future Scotland, one which is trying to recover from societal breakdown, and which is now one enormous Call Centre called ‘Scotcall’. There are some authors left and they reside in a designated communal tower block. All genres are here, separated on a floor-by-floor basis, but no matter what they write they are viewed with anything between suspicion and outright contempt.
It’s a novel which I’m almost scared to review in case I end up in it, and for that to make any sense you’ll have to read it – and even then… To call this a literary novel is an understatement of ludicrous proportions. It examines writing, writers, facts, fiction, and language, and contains a plethora of lists, footnotes, poetry, and experimentation in style and form.
It’s a book lover’s book, but one which is delightfully irreverent and facetious about almost every aspect of the literary world. If you believe that an ever diminishing readership is served by writers who increasingly find it difficult to get published, then House Of Writers is perhaps the logical conclusion as to where we are heading. If that sounds bleak, don’t let that put you off. Beneath the satire and pastiche hides a real love of literature. You might shake your head, but you’ll have a smile on your face.
It’s a novel which demands to be considered “meta” while simultaneously laughing at the very idea. The style is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition Of Humphry Clinker and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. But as well as shades of Gray there are many other influences at work – too many to mention them all, and doubtless many I will have missed. The most relevant writers which sprung to mind were Andrew Crumey, Kevin McNeil and Iain (M) Banks.
It also features real-life writers who regular readers will recognise and who are named, and sometimes shamed, on the page. They include Jackie Kay, Adam Thirwell, Alan Warner, Jodi Picoult, Ian Rankin and Kei Miller who all appear alongside the “new” writers Nicholls introduces. Fact and fiction are closely interwoven throughout, and there’s an almost overwhelming amount of current cultural references. I’m pretty sure it’s the only novel to reference Robert Burns, Robert Mugabe, Vic Chesnutt, Jon Secada and Christina Rossetti.
The House Of Writers fizzes with ideas and energy and evinces a verve which carries you along with it. M.J. Nicholls proves he is a writer who has the sort of clinical eye and cynical wit required of successful satirists, and the result is one of the best, and funniest, commentaries on writing and writers I have read. If you’re after some sort of conclusion, it’s that while the latter will come and go, the former will endure – a happy ending if ever there was one.
The House Of Writers is published by Sagging Meniscus Press.