It took a while to settle my thoughts on it! This is undoubtedly a brilliant debut but I didn’t like how it made me feel. I’m becoming too sensitive. A pandemic and two lockdowns will do that to ya. There is quite a deep melancholy running through the book and an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with life. That applies to all the characters. None more so than the protagonist, Wallace and rightly so.
What Brandon Taylor does well, he does brilliantly. He really encapsulates that feeling of being ‘othered’. What does it feel like to be ‘othered’ by everyone. Family. ‘friends’, colleagues (or co-students more accurately), lovers.
Wallace is a gay Black man living and studying Biochemistry in a predominantly White Midwestern town. There is a lot to render him an ‘other’ . Privately reckoning with his father’s recent death, Real Life paces with Wallace and his White college friends over a weekend. It’s been such a long time since I’ve read anything about agar plates! How can you make me miss agar plates??
Through Wallace’s relationships and conversations with the other characters, we are privy to the subtle micro aggressions, the blatant attacks on his race, sexuality, academic ability, shocking disrespect for his privacy. Taylor does well to demonstrate detailing how over time, all these little injuries amount to painful day to day existence. It was frustrating to read, it must have been frustrating to live
Something that struck a nerve with me were some of the conversations had when Wallace was the only Black person in the room (often). The dinner party conversation more than any other- you know that thing where someone says something MAD but if you respond, suddenly you’re the one who’s crazy? Yh that. Monumental gas lighting.
Self Involved Characters
It became difficult to read at times because it felt like every character in the book is designed as an affront to Wallace’s being. You want better for him
He is surrounded by people whose thoughts and insecurities manifest in the way they treat him. Every character’s outward interactions with had far more to do with their own respective failings than their relationships with each other. They were ALL projecting. What happens in Real Life?
I haven’t read many campus novels but maybe I should. Brandon Taylor shows how at university, you can build your own world that almost functions as a microcosm of real life. You can buffer against accepted measures of success- but the insularity and small scale means that emotions between individuals charge much bigger impacts. They’ve created an environment where they can hide from reality.
The prose in Real Life felt so clean and easy, I liked that. One of those ‘everything is happening but nothing is happening’ books. The point isn’t a fast paced pot, it’s to look at interactions. I would say Wallace’s character seemed a bit inconsistent to me at times. Overall, it made me think and feel so much! The breadth of themes was wide but the approach seemed casual. I could see this being televised in the Same vein as The Slap. I didn’t like the audiobook narration unfortunately- I wonder if it clouded my judgement of the book at one point. When I read it for myself, it started to take on a new life. I’m looking forward to reading whatever Taylor writes next!
Real Life by Brandon Taylor Published by Daunt Books July 2020 UK
Booker Long Listed 2020