Dispensing with Midwestern niceties and Southern platitudes, Brandon Taylor announces his arrival to readers with Real Life, a devastating wallop of a debut novel.
Impressive in its economy, the novel spans the course of a single weekend in the life of Wallace, a black graduate student who has moved from Alabama to a Midwestern university town. While navigating his simmering feelings of alienation and his inability to reconcile past wounds, Wallace reaches a boiling point amid conflicts and confrontations with colleagues and friends, as well as an unsettling sexual relationship with a former frenemy. As Wallace’s carefully constructed barriers begin to crumble, he spirals into hyper-intellectual ruminations on topics such as grief, privilege, racism, trauma, queer sexuality, violence, academia and the messy ways in which they all mix.
These heavy, uncomfortable topics make for a heavy, uncomfortable reading experience, one that shares more than a few similarities with Hanya Yanagihara’s juggernaut, A Little Life, both in terms of subject matter and tone. But while A Little Life could be unnecessarily grim and upsetting, the discomfort of Real Life has a point: to unsettle, to provoke and, hopefully, to cause white readers to reassess their own privilege and biases.
The discomfort of 'Real Life' has a point: to unsettle, to provoke and, hopefully, to cause white readers to reassess their own privilege and biases.
As Wallace reflects on a rather disastrous dinner party, “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.” Taylor isn’t serving up pablum here but cold hard truths, and the reader's job is to witness.
Real Life will undoubtedly unsettle some readers, but it will do the opposite for others, offering relief and validation at finally having their own experiences and truths recognized and reflected in a novel, and artfully so. Taylor’s language is breathtaking in its precision and poetry, and he has a real talent for writing beautifully about ugly, brutal things. The result is a book that can only be described as the perfect union of the two—brutiful—and should be considered essential reading for all.