The Bird Room is Chris Killen's first novel. It came out in hardback this year and the paperback edition is being published in January 2010. It's slim enough to read in a day, and the simplicity of its style means it's an undemanding read, gobbled up as easily as a comic. Yet despite its easy readability, it's quirky and whimsical - think Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with black adult streaks; a slight delight that can be snaffled between heavier fare.
Related mostly in the first person and the third person, the story unfolds in the present tense interspersed with flash-backs. At the start, the narrator is introducing a girl called Alice to his friend Will, a louche, shallow artist. Why is he introducing them? Is he match-making? We soon realise this is not the case. This neurotic young narrator has worried himself into a corner, created problems where there were none. In short, his paranoia about why his girlfriend likes him is destroying his relationship. Hampered by emotional inarticulacy, he anxiously digs himself into a hole. Meanwhile, his introduction of Alice to his 'friend' Will backfires.
This is a sweet, funny novelette which zips along like one of those cartoon relationships they used to have in girls' magazines of the '70s and '80s like My Guy and Jackie, only it's told from the boy's point of view rather than the girl's and with darker aspects of life thrown in. And we find out that boys can be just as over-analytical, worried and self-destructive as girls.
The humour comes from the way young men and women circle each other like mating animals, laughing coquettishly and trying to impress each other; acting parts. Here's an extract from where Will, the not untalented but certainly insensitive and loutish artist, shows Alice his French holiday photos:
'A run of photos taken in the train's toilet. One of the toilet bowl. One of himself in the mirror. She spends an extra few seconds on that one. She knows he's an artist and she wants to impress him, so she says 'I really like this part here, how the light sort of bounces off the mirror. Was that intentional?'
They are very bad photographs. Will is not a photographer. He's a painter. His paintings themselves are crude, almost childish in design.
'Dunno,' he shrugs. 'Didn't really think too much about it.' '
The awkwardness of the gauche , internally tortured narrator is conveyed with piercing accuracy:
'I take another sip of my tea. It's gone cold. I stand it near my foot. Later, when we get up to leave, I will knock it over. I will apologise. Will will tell me it really doesn't matter. Alice will look at me like I'm a prick. I will go over the top and offer to buy him some carpet shampoo. She will say, '****'s sake, it's just tea. It's not BLOOD.' '
The simplicity of the prose does not make for inert, vapid reading because Killen is certainly capable of evoking striking images when he wants to. A glib, much-rehearsed and brutish anecdote that Will the artist relates over and over to impress people is described as being 'exactly the same each time he tells it. It has grown slick and cold as a pebble on a riverbed.' (The artist's neanderthal denseness is humourously portrayed in the Q and A session after his anecdote.) The smoke from a cigarette smoked by a nervous young woman embarking on a porn video in a cold bathroom is likened to a stalking feline: 'The wisp and smell of the fag ghosts around the bathroom like a cat of smoke, rubbing itself against the pipes and tiles. It purrs its way down the back of her throat.'
There is a particularly endearing part where the narrator, who has taken to poring over the internet all day in an attempt to find an ill-advised amateur video Alice was once in, imagines computing his way into Alice's heart:
'I double-click on Alice in my head. I will double-click on her until she falls in love with me again... I will copy and paste myself into the folder of her affections... I double-click on Will. I select and delete him. 'Are you sure you want to send Will to the Recycle Bin?' I ask myself, then click 'Yes'. '
The more disturbing element of the story is provided in the form of Clair, a former Boots shop assistant who has changed her name to Helen and tells her mother she's now an actress. Unfortunately the only acting she does is in amateur porn videos. This more disturbing stand of the story is related in third person. But Helen's story has a sweet ending; we realise she was not as deeply into the porn trade as we feared, so that story retains a sort of innocence despite the subjects broached.
In the end, The Bird Room is a whisper of modern love showing how jealousy, insecurity and lack of communication can destroy an otherwise good relationship. It's like a written version of a cross between Jilted John and Buzzcocks. A short sharp shock of bitter-sweet, intense, plaintive young angst. ****0