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Brandon Taylor’s debut novel Real Life has been nominated for a Booker Prize. Warning: contains scenes of violence, rape, abuse
Real Life is the excellent debut novel from Brandon Taylor, nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize. Taylor shows the effect of memory, the past and racism on one man’s life. The setting is a mid-western university at the end of summer, and the protagonist Wallace is a graduate student who is gay and Black. The action takes place over the course of a weekend, but it is a weekend in which Wallace’s past, which he had thought he had left behind him when he moved north, catches up to him while he navigates the treacherous waters of academia and complicated friendships with his white fellow grad students.
Wallace has been in the graduate program at his university for three years, working in the biology program alongside a group of students whom he has known since he arrived in the unnamed midwestern city. He is not the only gay man there, but he is the only Black student, and when the novel opens, he has agreed to meet up with his friends for drinks at the lake on a Friday night. This is unusual for Wallace who does not drink and who rarely goes out; he spends most of his time in the lab working on his nematodes, which are microscopic worms used in larger research projects. Breeding them is both boring and difficult, and Wallace has just discovered that his nematodes have been contaminated, perhaps intentionally by another student. Wallace’s father died several weeks previously and he did not attend the funeral or even mention his death to anyone at the university. In the course of the evening with his friends — all white people and mostly fellow academics — he will reveal not only the death of his father but also his thoughts of perhaps leaving grad school. Both bits of information throw the group into an uproar, but particularly the matter of leaving academia.
As Wallace sits with his friends on Friday evening, and then joins them later for a Saturday evening party and Sunday brunch, we are privy to his thoughts on the group’s discussions related to their work and relationships. At each event, Wallace finds himself put on the spot and even humiliated while the others sit silently and/or try to laugh it off in the usual way of white people.
Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them ….
Yet the humiliation remains with Wallace, something they never seem to consider. The verbal attacks against him are brutal and racist. One student suggests that Wallace’s consideration of leaving the university is selfish, since the university has made an investment in him despite his lesser abilities. Another friend, the boyfriend of a fellow student, attacks Wallace at brunch for questions he had raised Saturday evening. He accuses Wallace of being selfish and not thinking of others despite the fact that most of these people cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be in Wallace’s shoes. Each of these attacks cause the others at the table to enter into an awkward silence, and later some of those in attendance will privately express their outrage and apologies to Wallace but they never speak up for him in public. Wallace faces similar treatment in the university lab, where some of the white women that he works with accuse him of being lazy and inattentive to his work despite the fact that it is often their own ineptitude or factors beyond his control that trip him up. Every student experiences the latter at some point, but Wallace is not granted much latitude when it happens to him. The professor who supervises his work, Simone, believes her female students’ complaints and questions Wallace’s abilities and his dedication. For Wallace, all of these episodes place him in a no-win situation, and his only response is to be contrite and redouble his efforts.
Meanwhile over this same weekend, Wallace, who has not had an adult relationship with another man, finds himself involved with a student named Miller. He and Miller have known each other for years as they are in the same program but they had, at best, a merely civil relationship. Matters heat up on Friday evening, much to the surprise of them both. Each man struggles to open up and feel confident in the relationship due to things that have happened in their pasts. Much of this part of the novel deals with abusive and violent relationships, and rape is described as well. We learn that for Wallace, university has been an escape from his past and his memories but with the death of his father, it starts to catch up to him again.
Author Brandon Taylor’s brilliant use of imagery is one of the aspects of this novel that really stood out for me. Throughout the story, characters talk about “real life” as opposed to the life they are living as academics. They feel both special and trapped, which is demonstrated by the very work they do with organisms in Petri dishes. Wallace is much like his nematodes — under scrutiny, set apart, and often unwell like his contaminated worms. This makes a perfect contrast to the recurring image of birds; they are free to fly away yet are also fragile. At one point in the novel, Wallace sees a bird stunned and dying on the ground after having flown into the window of his university building, and it takes him by surprise. He had seen dead birds before when he was a child in Alabama but never in the city. This makes a nice parallel to his personal situation, where the past is catching up to him, forcing him to make decisions about leaving the university and about his relationship with Miller.
Real Life is an intense novel and wholly engrossing. It’s an impressive debut and would make a great choice for a discussion group as well as for the “debut” square on the Cannonball Read bingo card.