Book review: My Life in Lists, by Guy Browning

Guy Browning PIC: REX/ShutterstockGuy Browning PIC: REX/Shutterstock
Guy Browning PIC: REX/Shutterstock
This is billed as 'the first novel to be written entirely in list form' and also as 'a novel for the listicle generation', listicles being the much-maligned articles-as-lists that clutter up newspaper websites to the extent that pretty much every single category of thing known to man has now been reduced to a top ten.

To be fair, not all listicles are vacuous clickbait – when done well, they can be just as informative and entertaining as what members of the pre-listicle generation would probably call “proper journalism”. In theory, then, it should follow that a novel in list form, when done well, has the potential to be just as good as a “proper novel”. List-novel pioneer Guy Browning certainly makes a valiant first attempt in this “highly autobiographical study of one man’s life from age 10 to 50”, but he fails in one key respect: he doesn’t appear to know what a list is, or how a list works.

Take, for example, his list of “How My Sister Lucy Became a Total Adult Virtually Overnight”. Point one, “Lucy went out and got her first job in Aloha”, is fair enough, in that it makes sense in relation to the title of the list, but point two, “Aloha is the local Hawaiian-themed restaurant down by the station”, is merely an extension of point one. There is nothing about the restaurant’s Hawaiian-ness, or indeed its location, that made Lucy “a Total Adult”. The same goes for point three, “It’s famous for its full English breakfasts. With pineapple”, and so on. What we have here isn’t really “a novel written entirely in list form”, as per the blurb, but a novel written entirely in groups of short sentences, numbered one to ten, some of which are lists and some of which are not.

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Granted, one of the joys of the literary technique of Constrained Writing – that is, choosing to write under certain predetermined conditions or limitations – is occasionally breaking out of those limitations for dramatic or comic effect, but if that’s what Browning is attempting here then he throws away the rule book so frequently that the only real effect is to provoke a mild sense of annoyance.

It’s a shame, because, setting aside this one rather glaring flaw, there are reasons to enjoy My Life In Lists, not least the good-natured way in which the narrator pokes fun at himself during the different stages of his life: as a naive, Adrian Mole-ish adolescent full of affected “weltschmerz” (world-weariness); as a newlywed struggling to adapt to a spouse obsessed with apparently inconsequential things like scatter cushions; and as a chaotic, sleep-deprived parent. As a novel in list form, then, this is an abject failure, but as a novel in bullet points it’s not half bad.

*My Life in Lists, by Guy Browning, Square Peg, £12.99