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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:
- Identify yourself (age sex location)
- Gain some perspective (first world problems)
- 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