Anyone without a healthy grounding in and affection for '90s Britpop shouldn't read Kill Your Friends. Set in London during 1997—the year Britpop's crest finally broke—the novel is narrated by sociopathic music executive Steven Stelfox. At one point, a frustrated Stelfox throws down the gauntlet and lists 68 bands "we, the A&R community… reckon you're going to be buying and enjoying in the coming year or so." The exhaustive list makes its point, but only for the kind of person who can tell by name-recognition alone that the Stereophonics went on to enjoy some success, but the Nicotines not so much. John Niven's book is vitriolic fun and a believable report from the dark heart of a dying industry—Niven himself was a veteran A&R man—but it isn't a stand-alone novel.
Niven kicks off with a typically gentle Hunter Thompson quote about the music industry ("thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs") and takes his tonal cues from Thompson as well. Stelfox is shallow and rapacious, but he isn't stupid: Savaging everything he knows is his greatest asset. One of the book's comic highlights is the continuing development of a blatant Spice Girls cash-in rip-off called Songbirds, whose lack of talent knows no bounds: One of the members' attempts at dancing is "like watching a baby horse, a five-minute-old colt, still gloopy from the womb, trying to stand up." The best parts of Kill Your Friends aren't really narrative, they're a blur of name-dropping, eviscerations of everything in the area, and endless synonyms for and fragments of drugged-out behavior. The music industry Stelfox knows is a dinosaur signing bands more or less at random, and hoping for one big hit to finance another year of partying. The writing is on the wall, but Stelfox can't see it: He's too busy trying to get through conversations with people who anger him (which is everyone) by thinking of synonyms for cocaine.
The bad behavior on display is entertaining enough, but Niven jazzes it up with some American Psycho-lite murders that don't really add anything. The egomania and colossal hubris—interspersed with evocative-for-the-like-minded namedrops—are more than enough without mucking things up with generic shocks. Like Thompson in another way, Niven eventually runs out of ways to keep describing the same things inventively. But Kill Your Friends is mostly quickly readable good fun that's frighteningly believable.