In Real Life by Chris Killen – Book Review

A sugar-coated antidote for the unreality of our times, Chris Killen’s second novel In Real Life borrows the post-internet slang from an age when we have to be reminded what’s real and what isn’t.

Despite its utopian pitch, social media swapped human warmth for cold predation: we ‘stalk’ and ‘follow’.

 

 

In the sociopathic spirit of this, I ‘researched’ the author before writing this review. Two years my junior and with a previous novel, prize-winning mockumentary, gloriously awkward blog, and job as fiction editor over at 3:AM Magazine, it wasn’t long before all I could see was the word Kill in his name.

Well-jel-ness aside, this is a terrific book about the after-university abyss, neatly framed by social media milestones. We first meet twenty-something protagonists Paul, Lauren and Ian at the benevolent birth of MySpace. Back then, Lauren and Paul are a thing, and Paul’s ex-housemate Ian is in a band going places. In real life, of course, nothing ever happens like it should, and we rejoin them a decade later, solitary, unsuccessful, and set adrift in a TwitFace Age where reality has become something you have to scroll through.

Aimless in a world without anchors, Killen’s characters grope for meaning and at first find only cliché; Lauren goes travelling, Ian works in a call centre, and for lecturer Paul you’re only as young as the student you feel. Niftily though, the book’s three acts suggest a manifesto for getting back to life, back to reality:

  1. Identify yourself (age sex location)
  2. Gain some perspective (first world problems)
  3. Get offline (be right back)

While Ian and Lauren’s lives are relayed intimately in first person, Paul is kept at the end of the authorial finger in third; yet he resembles the author the most, at least in online life. Like Killen, Paul’s a writer who went on to teach writing and who worries about losing his hair (under a webcam selfie on his blog, Killen asks “serious question: do i look like i’m going bald in the picture?”). Unlike Paul, however, Killen’s first novel hasn’t become an albatross nestling beside his lecturer’s lanyard; In Real Life fulfills its predecessor’s potential.

The press release came with a stapled packet of cola millions. Problematic in the same way that reality is in the book, I wondered if this not-really-a-bribe-bribe was cutesy or simply cute – affectation, after all, is simply affection gone too far. But in an era where books are measured in their unputdownability, the fact that I kept laying In Real Life to one side was actually a compliment. In these intermissions, I’d realise that my life, my real life that is, could be a lot worse.

“What’s up with you?” my girlfriend would say as I gazed at her gooey-eyed.

“Just glad you’re there,” I’d say.

“Oh god,” she’d reply, “Not again.”

While I may not be a real man, at least I know I’m real.

 

In Real Life by Chris Killen is out now published by Canongate. Available at amazon.

Review by Vienna Famous