M.J. Nicholls (Sagging Meniscus, £12.99)

Glasgow-based author Nicholls has had two novels published in the US, but this is his debut here. And what a calling card it is. Straight off the starting blocks, he skewers writers, readers and the publishing industry in a savage postmodern satire written with the fervour of a true bibiliophile.

Having saved up enough money to buy a cottage in Orkney, Marcus Schott quits his job to spend the next three years working through a list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. But it turns out he’s only a character created by another Marcus Schott. This one is an unsuccessful author whose previous book prompted his mother to suggest that if he really had to write “metawank” he could at least emulate Jasper Fforde and make some money out of it. Against all his expectations, he has won a £10,000 award to write a novel set in the Highlands, its publication to coincide with the tourist season. But Marcus has no intention of turning in the lightweight dross demanded of him, insisting that he will follow his muse and write instead about a man named Marcus Schott who goes to Orkney to read 1001 books in rural seclusion.

The storylines of the two Marcuses run in parallel. The “real” one battles with philistines from Highland Council who try to enforce their strict stipulations on the book’s content. Meanwhile, the “fictional” Marcus is in a surreal Orkney where sad men sit in pubs nursing violently colourful cocktails. In the library, he meets the eccentric Isobel Bartmel, who sees something of George Orwell’s Gordon Comstock in Marcus and believes that seducing him will inject some much-needed hot sex into Orwell’s oeuvre. Marcus has a rival, however, in Raine Upright, a fierce contrarian who scoffs at the classics and dismisses the literary canon. Both Isobel and Raine speak in the most preposterous, flamboyant manner, and Isobel warns Marcus that if he wants to survive in Orkney he too must become a “character”.

Essentially, they’re misanthropes who have lost faith in the wretched human race to escape into books, and insist that everyone should take literature as seriously and as all-consumingly as they do. “For me, composing a postmodern novel about a writer composing a postmodern novel is a more sincere form of emotional expression than the I-love-you,” says Marcus, and Nicholls’ novel is postmodern “metawank” cranked up to 11. It could hardly be more indulgent and self-referential, and the narrative, naturally, comes with built-in self-criticism. Luckily, Nicholls is wickedly funny and wildly verbally inventive, which does help to offset the unlikeable characters and their bombastic, fanatical chatter.

There are some glib touches that feel too obvious for this level of sophistication, as when Marcus receives an angry letter from the Society of Bland Authors, representing Tony Parsons, Ben Elton and Nick Hornby. But in a book which has you wondering whether even the typos are deliberate, it’s hard to know if the occasions when Nicholls swaps a rapier for a sledgehammer aren’t part of the grand design too.