Chris Killen’s second book, In Real Life, is a historical novel about the internet. It follows three digital natives — Paul, Ian and Lauren — who track their post-university lives via Facebook and email. They refresh their feeds. They measure out their lives in status updates. They are all deeply unhappy.
The story is told from their three perspectives and divided into two strands, one set in the present day, the other looking back to 2004, the year the trio graduated. The 2004 sections are tinged with a curious digital nostalgia. This was a time before torrenting and tweeting, a time when people bought books and CDs. Back then, Killen reminds us, people used quaint sites such as MySpace and Hotmail. They surfed the web in internet cafés, accompanied by a chirping chorus of 56k dial-up modems.
Since graduating, Paul has become a self-loathing novelist and tutor of creative writing. His previous novel was hailed as the work of a bright young thing but now he’s languishing in academia. His literary workshops are excruciating: “Each week, after about twenty minutes of Paul’s stuttering and mumbling on an aspect of creative writing, they will critique the first draft of a short story by someone in the group, and no one will ever say anything much about it except, ‘I liked it, I guess.’ ”
Paul is blocked, and so spends his days stalking his students on Facebook and attempting to “come up with a better idea for a novel than the one he’s currently writing”. His agent is on his case. His girlfriend is on his case. He’s plagued by spam and self-doubt. His girlfriend wants a baby and he doesn’t know whether he wants to give her one. He thinks he has cancer but can’t bring himself to google the symptoms — if he googles it, it might become real.
Ian is a failed musician who had some small success with his band but now works in a call-centre, cold-calling people and asking them to complete a “happiness survey”. Killen is good at capturing the affectless hell of the call-centre, the joyless repetitiveness of this work. “If you’re lucky, something interesting happens, like they’ll tell you to fuck off,” says Ian’s mentor on his first day.
Lauren and Paul used to be “in a relationship”, in Facebook parlance, but on a whim she left him to travel to Canada. Meanwhile, Ian and Lauren began an email correspondence and fell ever so slightly in love. Their epistolary exchanges are among the only moments in the novel when characters are honest about their feelings. Online, Killen implies, is the only place we can ever truly connect with one another.
It is slightly scary to think that the internet has become a repository for nostalgia, and Killen does a good job of evoking just how strange yet seamless this transition to a life lived predominantly online has been for most of us. In Real Life is a novel about memory, and about how we can go about possessing the past in an age when all memories seem to be readily available at the click of a mouse. In one moving passage Lauren listens to a voicemail message from her dead father, saved forever in her email account, but overall the web offers little solace.
Killen is a funny writer, and he captures the ennui of our online lives with some skill, but he isn’t always in full control of his language, especially when he’s being figurative. At one point Ian, denied internet access, feels “an email-shaped ache appear inside” him, leading you to wonder what emails are shaped like. Later, Lauren feels “a kind of cement-coloured malaise expand inside her like a miserable balloon”. Why “cement-coloured”? What would it mean for a balloon to be miserable?
At other times the shoehorning of computer-related imagery seems rather forced. “I try to smile”, thinks Ian, “and my face feels like a Microsoft Paint drawing of a smiling face.” When Paul comes back home from a bad day at the office he feels “nothing, absolutely nothing, like he’s trapped in a Paul-sized envelope of fog, maybe.” If this is the best he can do to describe his own death of affect then perhaps Paul is an unsuccessful writer because he’s not a very good one.
In 2004, Killen reminds us, people used quaint sites such as Hotmail and surfed the web in internet cafés accompanied by a chirping chorus of dial-up modems
But Killen’s larger point is a good one. Part of the perniciousness of our digital selves, he suggests, is that we don’t like to talk about them. The internet has become a kind of great collective unconscious, knowing our darkest secrets but giving them up only at inopportune moments. Our most terrible realisations are often nowadays not exposed in conversation or introspection, but provided by Google, or by reading our loved ones’ search histories. Despite its themes, In Real Life is a conventional novel; this is not to say it is a bad one. It’s a heartening book that generally avoids mawkish sentimentality, and is funny in a low-key way. You might not LOL, but you’ll probably crack a smile or two.
In Real Life, by Chris Killen, Canongate, RRP£12.99, 368 pages
Illustration by Juliana Wang