'Real Life' by Brandon Taylor
Updated: Jan 23
I know the year is young but this book will be a very difficult one to beat as the favorite for 2020. So here's the deal: Wallace is a young-ish research scientist in a graduate program at a Wisconsin university. His project is an arcane subject understood by few and his friends are, out of necessity, other research scientists working on similarly difficult-to-understand projects. The work is mostly solitary, so Wallace spends a great deal of time being, and feeling isolated. But other things isolate him as well. He is Black and gay, in a place where most people are white, and (at least ostensibly) straight. The novel takes place over the course of weekend when Wallace is struggling with a mishap in this lab experiments, and the crashing realization that he has not fully come to terms with his father's recent death.
To escape the lab, and his burgeoning sense of personal and academic failure, Wallace decides to join his friends at the lake, something he generally declines to do. That late summer lunch at the lake sets into motion a weekend filled with new beginnings, revelations, self-discovery and the potential of a new relationship (I hesitate to call it a "romance" given what transpires) between Wallace and a straight friend with whom he has a confounding and sometimes troubling dynamic.
Through Wallace, the author explores the role of race, gender and sexuality in society, but also in academia where intellectual pursuits sometimes provide a convenient escape from dealing with your shit. And Wallace has plenty of shit. His difficult, impoverished childhood, the soft bigotry of his adviser's (and fellow students') low expectations, and even the (mostly) benign inability of his friends to understand their own prejudices. As the weekend unfolds, and Wallace's new relationship develops, we see his scars and fears uncovered one by one, and his resigned acceptance of the notion that perhaps he deserves nothing good in his life.
Brandon Taylor is an exceptional writer. Exceptional. Not just because of the way he uses and manipulates language making most of his prose a thing of beauty, but because of the keen insight he has into human nature--the things that make people scared, and that motivate them, the reasons they act, or accept the status quo, the ways they deal with pain, and express joy. I was especially excited by this book because it provided an unflinching view into the psyche of a Black gay man; how he seeks and expresses intimacy, how he grapples with not being the aesthetic ideal in a culture that values physical beauty, and how he must navigate the perils of straight men who in his experience may only seek to damage and exploit him.
This was a sad, and at many points violent, and dark story. But there was beauty in it as well, especially in the way the author showed people trying to connect with and hold on to each other. Afraid, always afraid of ultimately winding up alone. Wallace, heartbreakingly, both feared and expected loneliness. I feared for him every step of the way, often wondering whether he would harm himself, or come to harm from others. I felt more deeply for him earlier on in this novel than I have for almost any other character since Jojo in Jesmyn Ward's 'Sing, Unburied, Sing'. Brandon Taylor's skillful writing had me thoroughly invested in him before the end of the first chapter. I wanted happiness for Wallace, desperately. And at the end, I found myself still hoping for it, as though he continued to live and breathe off the page. Now, for me, that's good writing.
Highly recommended if you like introspective literary fiction.