The Manchester lit scene has been dominated by the hype surrounding Chris Killen – writer, blogger, creator of the No Point in Not Being Friends night (by all accounts, the best lit night in the city) ever since Killen got a book contract through a chance encounter at Waterstone’s Deansgate, sending its job applications through the roof and hundreds of twentysomething Manc creative writing students into literal spasms of jealousy.
I have just read Killen’s debut, The Bird Room, and the big question is: is it worth the hype, the big-name gushing on the jacket? On balance, I would say yeah. True, the book is written in that watery, bloodless style that is the signature of contemporary fiction – call it ‘UEA Lite’ – through which you can discern the odd killer line like familiar landmarks on a misty day.
Will is a social and sexual inadequate who has somehow landed himself a beautiful girlfriend. When the mysterious Alice enters his bleak life, his attitude is: ‘There’s a glass girl in my bed. If I ask too many questions she will shatter.’ In these two lines Killen captures perfectly the agony of success: the pain of getting what you want because you are so afraid you’ll blow it.
Naturally, Will does blow the relationship, becoming obsessed with Alice’s unspoken past and spending his days trawling the internet for his girlfriend’s image on porn sites. It’s only a matter of time before he loses Alice to his friend and rival, a wealthy artist (also called Will). The balance of power slips from narrator to nemesis in a series of brilliant social manipulations. Envy, insecurity, the fragility of happiness, the propensity of man to destroy the thing he loves – these have been done before, but rarely this well.
Killen has the gift of establishing character in one line. Alice’s presumed ex, Darren ‘reads FHM, cover to cover.’ The moronic artist Will ‘tries out new personality traits.’ Will’s scenes are the funniest in the book: Killen has a satirical eye for pseudo-intellectual urban bullshit. At one point – a laugh-out-loud moment – Will claims ‘There should be no division between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’,’ before following up with ‘In fact, there should be no division between anything and anything.’
The book is crammed full of textual interplay – text messages, checklists, emails, responses to sex contact adverts, a back story traced down the length of a scar. The novel is very short, but it packs a lot in – while you never feel that, in M J Hyland’s phrase, ‘every word is on trial for its life’, you are at the same time never out of reach of a genuine tap on the human condition. A conversational pleasantry like How are you? ‘is just a sound; a kind of protection against silence and awkwardness’.
Okay, it’s not all good, the subplot about the actress doesn’t work out that well and there’s too much of that giggling scatological surreality that is another hallmark of Manchester fiction. But the pacing is a dream, and few writers can depict the reality of human interaction in such a close, vivid and yet original way. Chris Killen is a novelist of great talent and potential.