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Real Life by Brandon Taylor — book review

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“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry…but once I started Real Life I simply couldn’t stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence…still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness…

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor’s riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace’s story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni’s labs, to his or his friends’ apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor’s novel also subverts some of this genre’s characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning ‘real life vs. student life’ becomes a leitmotif in the characters’ conversations. Taylor’s novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which ‘real life’ problems make their way into a student’s realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these ‘friends’. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his ‘friends’ cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace’s mind is far more disturbing than what his friends’ rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn’t possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his ‘friends’, Wallace’s mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace’s discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace’s own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences…is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters’ conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor’s narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace’s own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor’s prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace’s lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace’s story. We read of his confusing desires, of his ‘friends’ hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction…Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace’s friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends’ horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace’s friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I’m trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Taylor.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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