The novel opens with a prologue called “Conception” wherein two inebriated characters have desultory sex following a blackout. Then we jump forward to a lurid set-piece involving blood, screaming and pain in which the main character, You, enters the world in one of the most grotesque literary introductions to a character since Snowden lay dying in the back.
The book has an interesting structure, with each day (a sentence) running fluidly, sometimes imperceptibly into the next; each week (a paragraph) containing at most one new idea; adding up to the 75 years (chapters) that contain the whole narrative. This was a bit long. 75 chapters is sort of a bit nineteenth century, somewhat Dickensian — and in fact Life is a bit Dickensian, with its eccentric minor characters, moral weightiness and throngs of poor people.
The early chapters get bogged down in the bodily functions of the idiotic lead, who sees the world like a character from a Faulkner novel. Chapters 5–12 are harder to recall, but made for pleasant reading, despite a barely perceptible, yet haunting feeling of dread. The tragi-comic sequence covering chapters 13–18 ranges from poignant to just uncomfortable to read, as You, surrounded by gawky and self-conscious peers, somehow manage to standout as even gawkier and more self-conscious.
Chapters 18–30 promised to be the most interesting but while the writing hinted at some revelatory insight, what we actually got was some pretty mediocre material about You trying to find themselves in university, Europe and hobby cooking — in that order. After a string of exploitative casual sexual trysts, You settle down with a demographically appropriate partner who doesn’t piss Your parents off too much and who has the same views on how frequently one should clean the fridge out. Then You propagate some side characters and the next ten chapters fly through a staccato sequence of barely conscious vignettes involving changing nappies, taking kids to soccer training and the occasional promotion at the inconsequential bureaucracy You settled for working at.
The middle passages were pretty dull, lacking the vibrancy and anticipation of the earlier chapters. They seemed mainly to be concerned with the drinking of wine, the renovating of bathrooms and the curating of superannuation schemes. The final section winds down and devolves into a repetitive, bucolic account of retirement in Somewhere Bay and makes for lazy holiday reading, until the agonising final few chapters which are poignant in their melancholy.The story ends with a whimper and while some people were hoping for an epilogue — there was none.
Some have called Life a sub-Joycean bildungsroman and it’s true that there wasn’t as much sex as one might hope for and there are long passages that simply devolve into maudlin self-reflection from the neurotic protagonist. But there are plenty of laughs all the way through and You, although flawed, is lovable. To anyone looking for an extended read I’d recommend Proust, of course, but Life always seems to get in the way whenever you try to read something really epic.
Better than non-existence, three stars.
This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.