Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I loved this book, from beginning to end — and it’s a book that stayed with me long after I put it down. In fact I recently re-read the last chapter, just to hear it one more time. I keep thinking about how moving this book was for a debut novel, and how beautifully written.

Real Life tells a story about a late-summer weekend in the life of Wallace, a young black gay man from Alabama, who is a biomedical researcher at a midwestern university (the book seemed to perfectly depict University of Wisconsin-Madison). Wallace is struggling to find his place at the school and with his fellow students, who are mostly white.

I found Wallace’s character incredibly sad. He’s gone to this university as a way to escape his life in the south, but getting out of town doesn’t help as much as he hoped it would.  His childhood traumas have followed him, and while he has a generous fellowship and a ready-made set of friends, both his work life and his social life are problematic.  Some of that comes from external factors like racism, but much of it comes from within.  His insecurities cause him to push down his emotions. He tries to please everyone but it comes at the expense of honest, sincere relationships. 

While my life has little in common with Wallace’s life, I found him easy to relate to, although he’s also incredibly frustrating at times. He holds his emotions so close and is so fearful of being hurt, he lashes out at the very people who want to get close to him. He’s accused of being selfish and he is at times, because he’s so enveloped in his own wounds, he doesn’t recognize those in others.

Taylor addresses so many issues in this book, like the issue of how trauma affects our growth and relationships with others, and issues of race and homophobia. And also whether you fit in with a group of people you have little in common with. There’s the desperation of not knowing who you are, or what you want to do with your life. There are the complications of grief and how you’re supposed to feel about your family (but don’t). And then there’s the tentative beginnings of a relationship, with all of its possibilities, and the terror that if you let down your guard, this person might destroy you.

There’s a scene where Wallace and Miller are getting to know each other, and one of them says “tell me about your trauma” – and something about that felt so real, so direct, I haven’t gotten it out of my head.

This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away. People take each others hands and they hold on as tight as they can, they hold on to each other and to themselves because they know that the other person will not.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

One of the themes in this book, as the title suggests, is whether university life is “real life”. One of Wallace’s fellow students has a boyfriend that accuses them all of not living in the real world. Wallace himself feels like he’s stuck with two bad choices: live a university life that is making him miserable, or live a “real life” that is terrifying.

I found myself comparing this book to Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, both about young black adults who are medical researchers in universities. Where Gyasi’s Gifty is a brilliant researcher who cares passionately about the outcome of her work, Wallace seems to be going through the motions, unclear about his goals. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell how much of this is his own uncertainty and how much is due to the racism he experiences in the lab.

I also found myself thinking a lot about how Wallace could have stood up for himself more effectively, or if getting angry only would have made his situation worse. One of the saddest things about this novel, for me, was how desperately Wallace wanted his friends to defend him from the racism of others, and how defeated he was when they didn’t.

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.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I loved this book, though it won’t be for everyone — it’s slow paced, almost moment by moment over a couple of days, and not much happens. Also you will want to mentally scream at most of the people in the book. This is the kind of book that raises a lot of issues but doesn’t necessarily resolve them. Every relationship in this book is a complicated one.

I found it beautiful, and sad, and thoughtful. I highly recommend it.

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