domingo, 13 de janeiro de 2013

THE BIRD ROOM by Chris Killen - Reviewed by John Holten

THE BIRD ROOM
Chris Killen 
Reviewed by John Holten


(Canongate Books 2009)

Doris Lessing doesn’t know what a blogroll is. We can be certain of this: she just doesn’t know. Chris Killen knows what a blogroll is. His blogroll contains such names as Zachery German, Tao Lin or Jenn Ashworth. His blog is called Day of Moustaches. It won an award: the 2007 Manchester Literary Festival's Blog Award. Doris Lessing also won an award that year, but she doesn’t like blogs. She wondered in her big speech if, ‘We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.’ Are literary blogs inane we are left wondering? Are bloggers all addicted, anaemic cabbages? Chris Killen’s debut novel, and very fine debut novel it is, called ‘The Bird Room’, is full of things Internet (it’s even got Internet metaphors!). Blogrolls are the age’s literary salons, it’s that simple.
As a writer myself I have often been tempted to start a literary blog, but haven’t to date (I do run a website but that’s a different beast somehow). I have spent a lot of time reading the blogs belonging to Killen and those on his blogroll. There may be some inanities, quite a lot of irony, and a general break from what the latest English Nobel Laureate finds so important to maintain. They all seem to be doing something new and irreverent – exactly like they should. This is always the way of it: we're in the middle of a generation gap with the rise of the Internet and social networking sites, print on demand technology and immediate opportunities for publication allowing the younger generation to quite literally re-invent publication. Knut Hamsun, one of Killen’s influences, was advised by Björnstjerne Björnson – his elder – to give it all up and become an actor: advice thankfully unheeded. Another Norwegian Erlend Loe published in 1998 a novel entitled ‘Naïve Supa’ (it was translated and published by Killen’s publisher Canongate in 2002) and introduced to literature a generation that has nothing to fight against, has no worries, ‘glasur-generasjonen’ (the icing generation) who grew up in ‘the most successful country in the world.’ What kind of literature, we were forced to ask, does that produce? I think an answer can be found in ‘The Bird Room’, a novel where the reader finds men full of doubt, wrapped around the proverbial finger of their more strong-willed girlfriends, where the dominant social, and even economic force, is the Internet. This is not exactly going to be literature engagé à la Sartre.
The narrator of one narrative strand in ‘The Bird Room’ is a young man called Will. He quits his job, but shortly afterwards finds a girlfriend, Alice. It all goes wrong as he slowly fades from his world, from his relationship, until he eventually asks Alice to ignore him. Which she does. He wonders if he still exists. He rings Dixons and asks about widescreen TVs, just to hear his own voice. He ‘works’ at home remember; he’s full of doubt. It could be all a load of Coupland Generation X shenanigans, but it’s safe to say that it is not.
There is a second narrative strand, that of Helen, who is an actress. It is told in the third person (unfortunately there is very little difference in this style than that of Will’s). Slowly, the two stands twirl together in a neat, somewhat satisfactory double helix.
The super-naïvism that characterises the mood of this novel can be summed up as that style which can comfortably represent all the irony, disconnected youthfulness, smartalecky frankness and modern-day angst that is unique to our own blog-laden day. Of course all these things are present in the Oslo of Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’: it’s the delivery that matters, and in terms of style, Killen is one of our own, a writer of our time and domain. Short staccato sentences, an omniscient murmur that isn’t actually all that interested in knowing everything, prose that smirks as its reader, holding its owns self-conscious sprezzatura up to literary pretensions. I think it is safe to say, and not as a means of veiled criticism, that reading Killen’s novel is an equal experience of Hemingway’s limpidness, Hamsun’s wildness as well as the seductions and influence of leaving comments on a blog or Facebook wall, text messaging and emails and the art of thumbnail, online portraiture. In short, it’s very familiar; it is seemingly effortless.
I have mentioned Google before in a short story, and it appears more and more in literature, just as it does in people’s lives, and God knows will continue to more and more as more writers use it for research. Killen goes a step further than I have yet seen and uses it as a fully fledged metaphorical device generator. We’re asked to picture in our heads: ‘A small terraced house, like the first result on a Google image search for ‘English suburbia.’’ (Doing so didn’t actually produce anything close to the desired result for me, but it still functioned as a healthy simile).
As Will’s relationship with Alice threatens to topple into paranoia, another Will, the narrator’s artist friend, enters the frame. Free of the self-conscious neuroses of our narrator he only further threatens the relationship. He is a curious character this Will, he would seem to represent the one character free of inner distress. I read it wondering if a commentary on the artist in society was going to surface. It does in a way; Killen’s painting of the dopey art student transformed into a successful career artist is amusing and accurate, and acts as telling contrast to the more conventional aspirations of the other young people. (Killen talks of an ‘art preview’, one of the few times reading the novel I was left wondering isn’t it in reality something else: namely an ‘art opening’) The second strand of the novel concerns Helen, who finds men on the Internet willing to pay to film her to do various weird and lewd things. Porn, like the Internet, serves Killen well. The existential chatter constantly going on in both narrative strands rarely plumb psychological depths – but that’s okay. Like Adam Thwirlwell’s debut ‘Politics’ (Cape, 2003), which curiously mirrors ‘The Bird Room’ with its own complicated ménage a trios of contemporary day love and ironic style of millennial existentialism, the perspective applied by Killen fits comfortably with what he tries to fit in the frame.
Reading a wonderful passage on staying at home all day, jacking off to porn on the Internet that is conducted in the second person singular, one intimates Killen’s ability to reverse the distancing effect of the Internet Doris Lessing so abhors. Like George Perec so wonderfully showed in ‘Un homme qui dort’, addressing the reader with an ambiguous ‘you’, results in an odd, unnerving engagement, blurring the boundary between the addressee and narrator/central character.
Toby Litt’s puff (and Toby Litt would often seem to be in many ways the T. S. Eliot to a generation of Internet savvy young writers such as Killen) describes ‘The Bird Room’ as ‘a beautiful Chinese puzzle of a novel’, and that does it admirable justice beyond its remit. Despite the brevity, this novel is an entertaining, enjoyable read, its irony never really over-stepping the mark. This all goes some of the way in proving that Killen can make the transition from a healthy web literary presence to the rigour of print publication. It leaves me asking for more and hoping that his next novel comes along soon and has a bit more girth, one or two plump love handles.

© John Holten 
Reproduced with permission

http://www.laurahird.com/newreview/birdroom.html
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