Just caught up with Chris Killen’s In Real Life – his first novel in six years, which kind of makes him the Donna Tartt of Manchester. The book follows three characters, Ian, Paul and Lauren, across a space of ten years. The three were at university together and full of grand plans and big dreams. A decade on none of them have made it in any meaningful way – Ian has just sold his guitar and signed on for JSA, Lauren is running a charity shop and has little emotional or social life. Only Paul is anywhere near what you could call successful, having secured a creative writing lectureship off the back of his first novel, Human Animus. But he is a pathetic, grasping, insecure hack, his partner’s demanding a baby while he’s pursuing nineteen-year-old students through Facebook – Paul is weak and selfish in a peculiarly British way and has no more idea about what’s going on than anyone else.
The novel has the poignancy of old Facebook photographs. It’s sad to look at these people because you know what they’re going to become, what’s going to happen to them and the compromises they’ll make. Though Killen messes around with split narrative and typography, there’s no real artifice in his writing, no sense of tricksiness or superiority – he’s honest above all things, the laureate of a certain kind of awkwardness, and this makes In Real Life so compelling and so unbearably sad in places.
I knew Chris Killen a little when I lived in Manchester and the book serves also as a great portrait of that city. South Manchester in the 2010s was full of hip young writers like Chris Killen and Anneliese Mackintosh – and, er, not so hip young writers, like me. The choice Killen presents is stark: somehow carve a living out of the creative structures, or disappear into telesales hell. (At one low point Paul is writing tentacle erotic for $0.5 a word.) Manchester is a boom city now and when I hear council leaders from MCC comparing the place with London, ready to compete on the world stage, etcetera – I’m happy for them but I worry that Manchester will develop, as well as London’s economic success, a whole set of London-style problems: rocketing rents, rip-off employers, tracts of substandard, damp-infested housing, inequality, ghettoization and people on the make. As well as a beautifully written love story, In Real Life is the story of a generation emerging into a different and harder world.