New Fiction

Finds and flops

By Joseph O'Neil

Even as the proposed European Constitution seems ever more defunct, the old Continent continues, in the vagrant minds of certain writers, to develop as a viable imaginative entity. The possibilities of what might be termed eccentric European literature (that is, writing not having a nationalist center) are explored in the work of the unusual British writer Nicholas Royle, who is apparently as comfortable in Norway or Romania—or, as he demonstrates in his darkly engaging new thriller, Belgium—as he is in England.

In Antwerp, Royle's off-centeredness is not merely geographic. The protagonists include an English film journalist, in Antwerp to interview an American filmmaker; the filmmaker himself, who is shooting a would-be cult biopic about Paul Delvaux, the Belgian surrealist artist; a series of mutilated female corpses accessorized by videos from the oeuvre of Harry Kümel, the Belgian director of, most notably, the bizarre Malpertuis, starring Orson Welles; sex workers in a house wired for Internet voyeurs; and the photographer Henk van Rensbergen, who is known for his pictures of abandoned spaces.

It's clear from this cast that Royle is obsessed with the haunting power of visual media to shape the male gaze on the world and, in particular, on women; but his thematic preoccupations are always at the service of the book's intricate and dynamic plot, and deepen the sad, spooky, and, yes, peculiarly Belgian atmosphere permeating every page (this is the country, after all, whose police practically "allowed unemployed electrician Marc Dutroux, in the mid-1990s, to inaugurate a collection of young girls in specially constructed cells in his Charleroi basement"). This kind of hybridity—a unique sensibility joined with an unabashed respect for the conventions of suspense—distinguishes our most interesting thriller writers. With Antwerp, Nicholas Royle joins that group.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/09/new-fiction/304185/