Middle-aged; lacking ambition and direction; verging on the brink of an identity crisis: these are the three aspects Chris Killen portrays in his second novel, In Real Life. His endearing inclusion of the Internet, superseding all aspects of these three friends’ – Lauren, Paul and Ian – lives, creates a friendly, warming and familiar narrative that makes In Real Life well worth a read.
In Real Life juxtaposes the past and present of three university friends, intertwining 2004 and 2014 to create a sense of nostalgia, adding to the characters’ endearing accounts. Killen opens with uncertainty. Lauren in 2004, under the section ‘part one: age sex location’ is debating her relationship with ‘bad breath’ Paul, and Ian is browsing the local job centre for placements. Such uncertainty characterises the novel, with characters often questioning their ambitions and purposes in the world: but it’s a delightful uncertainty that many readers can identify with.
2014 and this uncertainty is still with them. The three characters have lost contact, slowly descending into that in-between decade of their 30s: Ian is a ‘not-quite-made-it-but-I’ll-still-call-myself-a-musician’ musician, Paul has published a mediocre book, Human Aminus, that has failed to sell over four hundred and twenty-one copies, and Lauren finds herself balancing blind dates – organised by clichéd, pushy friends in relationships – and a job in a charity shop. All three are disappointed.
What Killen does so well is convey a sense of lost hope and ambition. Lauren asks ‘What exactly am I doing?’ This question echoes throughout the novel. Killen’s placement of such uncertainty in an internet age adds to the distinct, paradoxical realism of In Real Life. In an age where social media allows for an easy, casual Facebook, Twitter or Instagram stalk of old friends, the pressure to consistently post (boast?) about your ‘oh-so-exciting’ life and achievements is a universal problem. Indeed, all three characters face the pressures we all face everyday: is that too risky to write over email? Will they know that I’ve been on their profile? Why are they not replying when they’ve been online? Killen notes, ‘Because if I write it down, Paul thinks, then it becomes real’: it is this portrayal of the confusion between posting in virtual reality – the internet – and real life that is the real triumph of In Real Life. It is self-reflective, but in a light-hearted, amusing and universal way.
Admittedly, middle-aged crises may seem a little cliché, but Killen’s endearing voices make up for this perhaps superficially poor theme. Indeed, there were times where the voices became a little confusing – dotting around time scales perhaps a little too frequently. However, the charming narration, familiar references and general humour of the book make this definitely worthy of a bedtime read.
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