Real life is sometimes boring, rarely conclusive and boy, does the dialogue need work. ― Sarah Rees Brennan
“Hope and Michael are a married couple in their thirties, living in Philadelphia, and struggling with everyday adult angst. Michael runs an ad agency with his friend Elliot, whose marriage to Nancy is beginning to show the cracks of age, as is the friendship between Hope and her best friend Ellyn. Michael's best friend, Gary, on the other hand, is trying to get on with his womanising life, and get over the mutually-destructive affair he had with Michael's cousin, Melissa.” This is not the plot of Chris Killen’s second novel although it could’ve been. It’s actually the plot summary for the nineties television series thirtysomething. I mention it because I think this was probably the first time many of us started to think about being in our thirties as a problem. Up until then it was something to aim for. We’d hit sixteen and could legally have sex (at least in Scotland we could); we’d hit eighteen and could vote and drink; we’d hit twenty-one and could drive a heavy goods vehicle; we’d hit thirty and had we converted to Judaism we could be eligible to be chosen as a cantor to lead the services on the High Holidays. The world was our oyster and oysters are aphrodisiacs. Yeah, right.
Imagine if someone decided to remake thirtysomething set in contemporary Britain and not in some place fancy like London but in Manchester or Glasgow or Nottingham. In 2013, over 3.3 million adults in the UK aged between 20 and 34 were living with a parent or parents; the so-called boomerang generation. That’s 26% of this age group. “O brave new world that has such people in it!” Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture painted a portrait of a generation of nomads, born between the early 1960s to the early 1980s. These were the Baby Busts, the kidults, as opposed to the Baby Boomers (my lot, well, the second batch). Mitch Killen’s protagonists, on the other hand, were all born in 1984 or thereabouts. What shall we dub them then? Orwell’s Babies? Generation Y? As good an imagination as Orwell had methinks he wouldn’t have imagined a future quite as drab as this.
Do people in dystopias know they’re living in dystopias or do they write novels about futures even bleaker than the one they find themselves in? It’s what you’re used to innit? (Please tell me I used that correctly.)
But back to In Real Life. In 2004 Ian and Paul were flatmates. Paul was living with Lauren but they broke up; she wrote a pros and cons list and the cons won hands down. Paul and Ian drifted apart as often happens after uni. Lauren flies off to Canada for a while to try to get her life together; it doesn’t work out. Ten years later we meet up with them—this is a few months before they run into each other again for the first time in ten years—and it’s not a pretty sight. Successes they are not.
Paul’s published a novel that went straight into bargain bins; now he’s teaching creative writing unenthusiastically to a bunch of equally unenthusiastic students and supposedly working on a second book; at least that’s what he keeps telling his agent, Julian Miechowicz, who, for some reason, hasn’t completely given up on him:
Julian is a transplanted American, a few years older than Paul, with a thick black beard and a pained, disinterested way of speaking. Every time Paul’s met Julian, Julian has at some point or other touched his beard and squinted and said a variation on the statement, ‘The publishing industry is a sinking ship; in ten years’ time people won’t be reading books anymore.’ At their last meeting, which took place in the back room of a small pub in Soho, Paul had promised Julian that he’d start a Twitter account, even though deep down, he suspects that Twitter is for arseholes. He also promised that he’d have a draft of his novel ready for Julian to read ‘very, very soon’. That was almost two months ago, and Paul’s getting worried that Julian might drop him if he doesn’t deliver soon.
Ian’s moved in with his older sister—six and a half minutes older but, boy, does she make those six and a half minutes count:
‘So, what’s the plan?’ [she says]
‘I don’t know. Find a job? I shouldn’t need to stay here too long.’
Please don’t make me pay rent, I think.
‘I could ask Martin if there’s anything going at the call centre.’ she says. ‘He gets back next week.’
(I can think of almost nothing worse than working at a call centre with Martin as my boss.)
‘Have you spoken to Mum yet?’ she says.
‘Yep,’ I say quietly.
‘Well, you haven’t, because I called her just before I came to collect you and she knew nothing about all this.’
‘I’ll give her a ring later on.’
‘You’re going to have to help with rent and bills, you know.’
Lauren’s working for Cancer Research, not as a research scientist or anything cool like that; no, she’s running a charity shop:
I could see the stack of bin bags from halfway down Bingley Road. There were even more than usual; piled up to shoulder height, glistening with raindrops, they filled almost the whole doorway, completely obscuring the ‘Please do not leave donations on the step!’ sign I’d made and tacked up on Saturday night. I had to drag the bags into the street to get the shutters open, and one of them caught on a shard of broken glass, spilled its contents into the road: Dora the Explorer pyjamas, stained soft toys, and a few cardboard baby books so damp they’d almost turned to mush.
This is a novel of bad choices, missed opportunities, lost causes and fumbled second chances.
The format took me a while to get my head around. The book is broken into three parts: ‘age sex location’, ‘first world problems’ and ‘be right back’. Each individual chapter focuses on one of the three protagonists. Mostly Lauren’s are set in 2004 and the two lads’ in 2014 although once we get into the second part of the book we get to find out what’s happening with Lauren now. The one anomaly is on p.65 which is headed ‘IAN 2004’; it’s a proofreading error but it did throw me off. As did the e-mails between Lauren and Ian. The first one appears on p.95 at the end of one of Lauren’s 2004 chapters. The next one follows (but does not appear to be a part of) the first chapter in the second part which begins ‘LAUREN 2014’ which I assumed was another mistake by an editor but, no, she’s now in 2014 but the e-mails, which appear periodically throughout the rest of this section, are all still from 2004. In the third part Lauren’s back in 2005 (and back in the UK) except where she appears in person in the book’s final chapter ‘IAN 2015’. Confused? Yeah, me too and I’ve got the book in front of me.
I was also confused by the two lads, Ian and Paul. I kept getting them mixed up in my head. There’re plenty of reasons not to but I struggled to keep them separate. I think the reason for this is I saw them both as abject failures above everything else; it didn’t really matter what they’d failed at or were currently failing at; the overbearing fact was the fact they’d reached thirty and not made anything of their lives. And they were both well into their individual quarter-life crisis. In fact on p.328 Ian does end up moving back in with his mum:
‘Nice to have you back,’ she says.
‘Nice to have me back, too,’ I say.
‘You know you can stay here for as long as you want.’
She heads down the small, creaking staircase and I hear the faint murmur of her and Carol’s voices in the living room. In the corner of the room is the single bed I slept on all through my childhood and teenage years, the one I lost my virginity on. I close the door to my room, then lie down on it, still in all my clothes.
The novel’s basic premise is simple enough: Lauren picked the wrong friend. She should’ve gone out with Ian rather than Paul—maybe she’d’ve been his salvation—but by the time she realises this she’s some four thousand miles away. Ian writes. She writes back. Things progress tentatively but peter out. Life gets in the way and, ten years on, it crosses both their minds that maybe that was their Sliding Doors moment. But what’re you going to do about it now? Answer: There’s nothing to be done. People lose touch. Chances slip through our fingertips. Shit happens. But what if Fate happened to be in a good mood one day at the start of, say, 2015? Now that would make a satisfactory ending to this book and, God, it needs it. We expect Lauren and Ian to run into each other in 2015—no spoiler there—but the real question here is: Why after rejecting Paul would she choose Ian? Is this history repeating itself?
Tao Lin, one of the authors roped in to say nice things about the book, writes:
In Real Life, is poignant, intricate, stimulating, and very funny. I wanted to stop around 30 times to show a friend a passage I'd just read. If forced to quickly describe In Real Life with names and percentages, I might say 86% Richard Yates, 14% David Lynch; or 100% Chris Killen.
Maybe he was thinking of another David Lynch because I didn’t see anything in this book that I’d describe as Lynchian, i.e. “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane.” Mundanity it has aplenty. So, maybe 7%, David Lynch. But there’s nothing remotely macabre here. And Yates, what I know of him (which is basically the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road), is too American. This felt a very British book. More Bruce Robinson (who wrote and directed Withnail and I) and Keith Waterhouse (who wrote the novel Billy Liar) than anything else though don’t ask me for percentages. And maybe a pinch of Dan Rhodes. I mention these three because it’s clear (he confirms it in this 2011 interview) the author has a fondness for cringeworthy moments. In an interview Yates said: “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” If that’s what Tao Lin was getting at I can maybe see his point but although Chris Killen doesn’t go so far as to give us a happy ending at least we’re left with the possibility of a happy ending. In an article on Yates in Boston Review Stewart O’Nan writes:
It’s his insistence on the blunt reality of failure that drew me to Yates. In my world at the time (and even now), failure was much more common than success, endurance the best that could be hoped for. Family and love were hard and often impossible. In the world I knew, no one was saved by luck or bailed out by coincidence; no understanding lovers or friends or parents or children made the unbearable suddenly pleasant. Fortunes didn’t change, they just followed a track into a dead end and left you there. To find a writer who understood that and didn’t gussy it up with tough-guy irony or drown it in sentimental tears was a revelation. Yates—even in the mid-’80s, when I first read Revolutionary Road—seemed to me a refreshing change from the false, cloying fiction that passed for realism. He still does.
This brings me neatly to the title, In Real Life. In the 1930’s the big new -ism on the block was escapism. During the Great Depression it gave people a way out of reality and into a world of fantasy that seemed dramatically more liveable than where they were. Somehow—amazingly—we managed to avoid the Big D. this time round (history will remember it merely as the Great Recession) but I don’t think the man in the street cares much about semantics. So why should he care about this book?
I’m not sure everyone will. (Angus Sutherland writing in The Skinny most certainly didn’t and kudos to Killen for publishing the link on his blog.) Despite the humour, despite the fact we Brits love rooting for an underdog these characters hit a bit too close to home for my tastes; this is a kitchen sink drama masquerading as escapist fiction. Like Paul my first marriage broke up in my early twenties and I ended up back at my parents’ and in my early thirties I was back there again. Like Ian my first novel disappeared without creating any ripples. I’ve never actually worked in a charity shop but I lived out of them for years. And yet here I am today twenty-odd years later and maybe everything didn’t work out as I’d planned but the important things did and, of course, there’s no guarantee that these three are going to make it or even any real reason that they deserve to make it—important point—but that’s why it’s good this book isn’t real life because even a half-decent fiction writer knows when to leave well alone and hand over the reins to his readers’ imaginations.
Chris Killen was born in 1981. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester and his debut novel, The Bird Room was published by Canongate in 2009. Wizard's Way, a film he co-wrote, produced and starred in won the Best Comedy Feature award at London Independent Film Festival, and the Discovery Award at LOCO. Remake rights have been acquired by Jack Black. He currently lives in Manchester and plays in a band called Hot Shots. I’ve no idea what they sound like but if they do cover versions of old Smiths songs I wouldn’t be too surprised.