Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor


Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

This review would be a lot easier to write if Brandon Taylor weren’t so good.

Real Life” was like a crush, an obsession. It seemed almost to beckon me like a half-curled hand, and when I finished reading it, I sat in the state of suspension that often comes over me at the end of a particularly good book, the sense of coming slowly back to awareness of the world outside my mind, and finding it echoing with a quiet that wasn’t so much silence, but sound pulled inside out.

On the surface, Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, “Real Life”, is the story of a gay black biochemistry student named Wallace from a small town in Alabama studying in an unnamed, large Midwestern university. But that barely touches the experience of reading this novel.

The first element that makes “Real Life” so distinctive is the writing. Taylor has an unerring talent for acutely translating emotion into concrete sensation to slide readers into his character’s space, where they experience everything from the inside. Taylor’s descriptions have shores, depths, a purpose and a shape—they’re not just formless and opaque, stretching out to every horizon. He writes as if he is closing his eyes and imagining he was opening other eyes that would look inward instead of out. But as fine and vivid as that deep soul-probe is, Taylor zooms outward just as deftly, marking everything, no detail too small to escape his notice—reflecting Wallace’s own tendency to see himself in every aspect of existence around him. This, I think, is the kind of prose that wants to be more than just read. It wants to be heard and tasted and felt. The kind that slides between your ribs, and opens you up like a reliquary full of old, forgotten memories.

Taylor peeks into Wallace’s state of troubled, quiet aloneness with both rigor and poetic license. A mind is a place—a landscape, a wilderness, a city, a world—that you could pace in endless, restless circuits and never find its edges. And Wallace’s is a world unto itself pulled tight and secretive, his thoughts sinking deep, undetected, like underground water. “You are so determined to be unknowable,” one of his friends—feeling like he could no more reach Wallace than he could fly into the air—tells him at one point. But no matter how good the mind is at hiding things, it cannot erase them. It can only conceal, and concealed things are not gone.

I saw myself in Wallace, in the weariness to his edges, like fraying cloth. It was as though Wallace’s character evoked in me something that had the size and shape of a memory, but inversed or turned inside out. I recognized in his manner a familiar loneliness, a forlornness. That unbearable claustrophobia of the soul that comes through with powerful clarity in this novel—no walls to throw an echo back, you clap and clap, but nothing answers back. It was hard to keep reading at times, as though with every page, I left something essential of me behind.

Taylor captures it all, with devastating honesty and vulnerability: Wallace’s longing—for a person, for a world, for a sense of self. The remembered violence of his past which he was in most agony to hide, but which was working its way into every crevice of his life, transmuting itself into an all-pervasive self-hatred and shame. The sadness in his anger, the guardedness of his grief over his recently dead father. A need growing inside his chest like a fruit splitting its rind: to shed his skin, snakelike, and fling himself into the seething unknown. Wallace’s lust and his tremulous relationship with Miller which had a wild, manic quality to it—something hectic and unhinged and a little perilous about it. Academia, and how it was twofold for Wallace—it sidelined him (Wallace feels bottlenecked in the narrow halls of his predominantly white school, pressed together like tinned fish with people waiting for him to set foot in an unpropitious spot and prove their assumptions about him), but it also shepherded him. It was the invisible nautilus shell protecting him from the world, hope-laced and cruel, and “if he should lose it, he might not survive his life.”

Real Life” is also a razor-sharp exploration of how people can live shoulder to shoulder yet remain invisible to each other. There is an edge to Wallace, a hard collision with life, that his friends and colleagues—most of whom are white—hadn’t known in their soft cocoons. Micro-aggressions are examined—so familiar that my heart often felt like someone had touched a lit match to it—and midway through “Real Life”, Wallace makes a painful observation: “They are always laughing. This is it. That’s how they get by. Silence and laughter, silence and laughter, switch and swing. The way one glides through this life without having to think about anything hard,” and later, “There will always be this moment. There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down.” His friends might listen, and nod, but the doors behind their eyes are closed, and their complacent silence proves to be as much a violation as a black eye, or a sprained wrist. “None of this is fair,” writes Taylor, “None of this is good, [Wallace] knows. But he also knows that the point is not fairness. The point is not to be treated fairly or well. The point is to get your work done. The point is results.” That is the tyranny of real life.

In those passages and so many others like it, we see the purifying rage of Taylor’s prose. The novel offers itself up, bare and vulnerable, for its readers so they don’t have to take on the daunting task of finding language to make sense of what they are feeling. We live in a culture that makes such little effort to understand the experiences of queer people of color, let alone help them understand their own. But “Real Life” is a scream that ensures visibility. It rings a bell deep inside, striking a resonant, vibrating note that makes you nod yes with recognition.

Sensual, defiant, and highly inward, this fiercely honest debut will linger long past the last page. A Must read.


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