Christmas is so much more stressful and time consuming than it should be. Even when you don’t really do anything. Especially when you don’t do anything. I should have reviewed this book weeks ago but instead I watched the Cbeebies pantomimes eight thousand times and ate chocolate and patiently explained to a two year old that shadows and rain and cats and the noise a blender makes are not scary things, not really. Merry Christmas. My to-do list has grown like Jack’s beanstalk (and oh my God I have no other cultural references now except Cbeebies pantomimes).
This morning, I woke from a nightmare about reviewing In Real Life, my head looping ‘the-more-I-think-about-the-bit-with-the-horse-the-less-it-holds-together’ AND THERE IS NO BIT WITH A HORSE IN THE NOVEL. No horse. In Real Life is a novel of broken dreams and good jokes and ennui. And this is good. This is how it should be, sometimes.
Paul is a writer struggling to produce a second novel. Ian is an almost-made-it guitarist, now living in his sister’s box room. Lauren works in a charity shop and wonders where it all went wrong. We view their lives from 2004, when their lives seemed promising and shiny and new, and then again in 2014, when the wheels have fallen off their dreams. Technically Paul, Ian and Lauren form a love-triangle but it is one with little-to-no overlap. Ian starts to have an e-mail conversation with Lauren when she moves to Canada after splitting up with Paul. There is no rivalry, no competition, and this lack of tension is typical, almost thematic, in a novel that is less about what we do than what we live through. Existence is something that happens to the characters of In Real Life, a swamp to be crossed. Although ostensibly a romantic comedy, I guess, In Real Life has far more to say about the modern condition than ‘isn’t it nice when two people love each other’. There are more unhappy relationships than happy ones, more misery than joy. Killen is not, by any stretch of the imagination, selling a dream here. Ian is Mr Right channelled through disappointment, a stale takeaway burp on his lips. The humour is tinged with resignation.
I enjoyed In Real Life while not being entirely convinced by its world view or, in turn, its narrative drive. The reader is asked to believe that the fairly short exchange of emails between Ian and Lauren has been so overwhelmingly important to them that ten years on they still consider it the epitome of true love. This is problematic because a) it isn’t, and b) that makes the reader question why they might think that it is.
My assumption is that In Real Life is a representation of the perceived universal world-weariness of a generation split between offline and online versions of reality. However, it is also possible to view any or all of the characters in the novel as suffering from depression. (Especially if, like me, you don’t buy the whole universal ennui literary scene – after all, if nobody is motivated beyond their next tweet how are all these novels chronicling that supposed reality getting written?) If Ian and Lauren are depressed then yes, they might cling to the emails as something pure, but then does the ending hold together? Or is it more cynical than it appears? I was also unsure what, if anything, Lauren is supposed to want. Paul is a writer, Ian a musician, but Lauren is… what? Despite at one point stating that she is happy being single she exists in the novel mostly as the ex-girlfriend of one character and the love interest of another. What are her ambitions beyond reconnecting with someone she hardly knows?
Which all sounds like I didn’t enjoy In Real Life. I did. Killen has great comic timing and an eye for the tragedy of little failures. He reports boredom instead of trying to recreate it, as some of his contemporaries seem intent on doing. The description and path of Paul’s descent from promising novelist to nobody is brilliantly heartless. There is much to be admired here. Most interestingly, with five years having passed since Killen’s debut novel and this one, it is hard not to see Paul as a kind of catharsis: a vestibule of the soul in which to push the shit of not writing. Paul is a dark matter Chris Killen, occupying the same spaces but acting differently. Killen is obviously having fun with his Mr Hyde and Paul’s from grace as well as being funny, does balance the novel, acting as ballast to the sometimes twee exchange of emails.
Any Cop: Yes, mostly. In Real Life is a thoughtful comedy of manners which has some truly great moments. It does however, perhaps, overly rely on the reader sharing the author’s world view. If you love writers such as Ta Lin and Ben Brooks, this will sit happily on your bookshelf.