Anthony Cummins

Like Hell

Hello Friend We Missed You

By

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In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the Taiwanese-American writer Tao Lin was a talisman of ‘alt-lit’, a kind of internet-inspired literary mumblecore. Works such as Eeeee Eee Eeee and Shoplifting from American Apparel described the ‘exploits’ (as he might have put it) of Xanax-addled digital natives in lo-fi prose seemingly embarrassed by language itself: hyper-sensitive to cliché, yet unable or unwilling to escape it, Lin would sometimes end up putting scare quotes around almost every other word, the most conspicuous of his many prose tics.

Lin isn’t much mentioned these days (perhaps for reasons beyond literature; in 2014 he was accused of statutory rape, which he has denied, and he’s also a 9/11 conspiracy theorist). Yet it’s not a stretch to see him as the missing link between, say, Bret Easton Ellis and Ottessa Moshfegh, or as an outrider for what a recent review in the Financial Times dubbed ‘modern flat’, a first-person style built on ‘deceptively simple structures’ and ‘short, almost curt sentences’ (think Sheila Heti or Sally Rooney). Still, even compared to the writers who followed him, Lin’s brand of millennial ennui could be relentless, offering little by way of compensation to anyone who didn’t see its funny side.

Welsh writer Richard Owain Roberts, on the evidence of his first novel, has learned from Lin in more ways than one. Hello Friend We Missed You, winner of this year’s Not the Booker prize, is recognisably alt-lit in style and sensibility, but with the benefit of added heart. The novel’s title comes from a Domino’s Pizza marketing message repeatedly sent in error to the novel’s protagonist, Hill. He is a stalled filmmaker and ex-drinker struggling to stay on the wagon after returning home to Anglesey to live with his dying father, Roger, currently being cared for by Trudy, a PhD student about to depart for fieldwork overseas (they met in the local Co-op).

Almost at once Hill and Trudy slip into a relationship built on rimming, late-night scrolling through social media timelines and a narrow range of shared references: replaying iPhone footage Hill shoots at the beach, Trudy says, ‘So aimless … Gullcore, I love it.’

It’s two years since Hill’s wife, Lucy, died, and he has never properly spoken to Roger – always ‘Roger’, never ‘Dad’ – about his mother’s suicide when he was eleven. The novel reveals next to nothing about either death; Roberts uses them to shape the emotional texture of the narrative without resort to slushy psychologising. Added misery comes from Hill’s inability to make contact with the actor Jack Black, who has optioned one of his ideas. ‘It was a fake podcast that we came up with and filmed ourselves recording,’ he explains. But radio silence followed and Black’s renewal of his option (via an assistant) has only furthered Hill’s sense of limbo.

The deadpan prose is staccato and comically specific. A representative passage runs: ‘Hill takes a long drink from a 550ml carton of Orange and Lime Tropicana … Hill looks at his phone and refreshes WhatsApp, Gmail, Messenger in rotation for several minutes.’ Hill’s thoughts are internet-shaped: at one point he thinks (not types), ‘I am the worst person ffs’. Characters are invariably introduced by reference to any three items they are wearing; the phrase ‘oversized cable-knit sweater’ becomes funny simply by dint of being repeated so often.

Repetition, as well as a way to sum up Hill’s emotional stasis, is central to the novel’s comedy. Witness the moment when Hill, grocery shopping, runs into a dislikeable former schoolmate, Stuart, a stockbroker whom Hill thinks of as ‘a balding loser with …no online presence’. Stuart suggests swapping numbers:

Great, Hill says.
Why, Hill thinks.
Hill stands and watches as Stuart uses Siri to register Hill as a new contact.
Hill from school, Stuart says.
Hill from school, Stuart says.
Hill from school, Stuart says.
‘Hill from school’, Hill thinks.

Further amusement lies in the pitfalls of digital etiquette. The first night Hill meets Trudy, he trawls her Facebook page before accidentally liking a picture (‘a photo numbered 419 of 834’) without being friends with her, a slip that doesn’t go unnoticed. In passages that recall the Martin Amis story ‘Career Move’, Hill spends all night obsessively revising emails to Black to strike the right note: ‘I left a message with your assistant eight (?) weeks ago … Sorry to be so pushy.’

Failure to communicate lies at the novel’s heart. Hill’s sense that he occupies higher ground than the Stuarts of this world fosters a siege mentality that proves oddly endearing. Yet it’s sad that he can’t see Roger’s evident pride in him, even when Trudy points out that Roger told her about Jack Black’s investment ten minutes after they first met. A crushing passage recounts how, as a teenager, Hill, having witnessed a road accident, went home to tell Roger about it, only to pause on the threshold of the study door at the sound of his widowed father crying, before walking away in silence.

Such poignant flashes help Roberts immerse us in Hill’s depression without the narrative plunging into solipsism. It still feels fresh to read a novel acknowledging how social media functions as a conduit for human needs (at a party, Hill thinks of ‘how much he would like to sit down with a four pack and look through the photos on Lucy’s Facebook’). The book also delivers the satisfactions of an off-kilter romantic comedy: Hill’s sweetly drawn relationship with Trudy adds buoyancy without cheap redemption. Above all, it succeeds because of Roberts’s gift for comic timing and for dialogue that rings true – or ‘rings true’, I should say.

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