Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I’m wary of campus novels. There is an allure but also an expectation that I will be about to meet a whole load of intense, self-obsessed and privileged characters whose wider understanding of the world feels limited to their age and experience in a way that isn’t always intoxicating and impassioned enough to mitigate my irritation. Real Life really is, as The New Yorker called it, ‘a new kind of campus novel’. Though the collegiate experience is central to the book, the main character Wallace so finely dissects the minutiae of human interaction, those millisecond pauses in which we read each others’ expressions and interpret each others language, in which we consider how much to say and how much to withhold, that I think I bent down almost half of the pages of the book.

Wallace is studying biochemistry. He has forged a new life for himself away from his roots in Alabama, roots that he rarely shares but that we are given in the only passage of first person that gives us the pain of his childhood abuse at first hand. His father has just died and he didn’t travel back for the funeral. When the book opens he hasn’t yet told his friends.

Wallace has been working hard in the lab and an experiment that has taken weeks has been contaminated. He is exhausted from the constant need to prove his worth because he comes from a less privileged background, had gaps in his education he had to work to bridge and he is a gay black man. The book very eloquently describes the systemic racism he faces on a daily basis. 

Once the death of his father becomes common knowledge, his friend Cole asks him how he is.

‘It’s… mostly fine,’ Wallace admits, getting too close to the bone. He doesn’t want to go back over the thing about how grief can feel diffuse and dense all at once, like a flock of birds in the sky. He doesn’t want to get into it. He can taste dirt on his lips and in his mouth, granular and salty.

Cole blinks like he’s looked into the sun for too long. Mostly fine. This is why Wallace never tells anyone anything. This is why he keeps the truth to himself, because other people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings. They don’t know what to do when they’ve heard something that does not align with their own perception of things. There is a pause. And a silence.’ (p136)

It is this ongoing self-reflection over how to forge real relationships with others that not only enlivens Wallace as a fully conscious person I’m so emotionally bound to that a meeting with his supervisor towards the end of the novel has me in tears, but that articulates the delicate ebb and flow of intimacy so brilliantly it just makes you want to read more and more. I didn’t want the book to end and in a strange way it never does. I won’t spoil how it finishes, but let’s just say there is a sense in which this long weekend of Wallace’s life, at the end of the summer, hangs free of time, is suspended as something that will play and replay for us and for him.

Alongside this eloquence is an honesty of experience that painfully depicts white privilege.

‘The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgement. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.’ (p97)

There is one particularly painful dinner party – I should mention that all but one of Wallace’s friends at university are white – in which one of the people present speaks offensively to Wallace and everyone ignores it. ‘Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That’s the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.’ (p162)  Even when it comes up much later with Miller, who is an old straight friend entering into a sexual relationship with Wallace, one which both of them are uncertain and wary of, Wallace can only see Miller’s expression of apology as half-arsed. 

‘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. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen. There is no amount of loving that will ever bring Miller closer to him in this respect. There is no amount of desire. There will always remain a small space between them, a space where people like Roman will take root and say ugly, hateful things to him. It’s the place in every white person’s heart where their racism lives and flourishes, not some vast open plain but a small crack, which is all it takes.’ (p187)

Though this beam of intense enquiry is sharp it isn’t only directed outwards. Wallace remains uncertain of himself, unsure as to whether his behaviour is always justified. The anger he feels at the dinner party, he deflects outwards onto others, forcing others to feel the discomfort he feels and he questions this behaviour. His one non-white friend tells him he’s been selfish, that he hasn’t considered how hard it has been for her and his words of apology fall flat. To say sorry ‘has such little worth, that to offer it seems almost an insult’ (p273).

Then there is the relationship that is brewing between him and Miller, his supposedly straight but very angry friend. They move from tenderness to violence in a breath, tearing open the wounds inside of themselves, the pain they have spent so much time trying to mask as they move through their daily lives.

And more, there is just so much more. Those people who help us and disappear. The difficulty of loving someone who is also abusive. Slithers of memory, things Wallace has tried to forget, break through into his experience, at one point he smells beer from the sweat scent Miller left in his room and he thinks of his mother, remembers the good things. ‘It is why he does not trust memory. Memory sifts. Memory lifts. Memory makes do with what it is given. Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life. But he thinks of her. She falls out of the scent of beer, and he shuts his bedroom door because he cannot bear it.’ (p144).

Real Life is filled with this kind of insight and reflection. Passages on friendship and pain and cruelty. Real Life is a beautifully written book that makes you ache all over. What a fabulous debut. I can’t wait to read more from Brandon Taylor.

I’ll be reviewing Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami next, followed by Raybearer by Jordan Ifeko and Girl in the Walls by A. J. Gnuse.