Review: Real Life

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including a literary fiction novel that released earlier this year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a stunning debut!

reallifeIn the novel, Wallace is a (Black) graduate student spending his summer doing lab work toward his biochemistry degree. Over the course of a weekend, he grapples with a major setback (probably sabotage) in the lab, while also sorting out his feelings about his dad’s recent death, and dealing with fraught, changing relationships among his (White) friend group. The magnitude of obstacles stacked against him and the deeply ingrained prejudices that affect even his closest friendships at the Midwestern school leave him wondering whether the education and career path he has chosen is worth the misery it is causing him.

“But to stay in graduate school, to stay where he is, means to accept the futility of his efforts to blend in seamlessly with those around him. It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life. Stay here and suffer, or exit and drown, he thinks.”

If you love literary fiction and are looking for the perfect book to read right now to support Black authors and also honor Pride month, look no further. This is it. It’s gay, it exposes all kinds of racism, and Taylor’s writing is incredible. To be honest I thought there were a few overwritten passages, but that’s really my only criticism for the entire book. I loved every page, was repeatedly stunned by the character dynamics and commentary Taylor was able to draw through them, and appreciated that the narrative voice was able both to teach me about an experience very different from my own and to reveal how I, as a white person, may be complicit in forcing this experience on someone else, whether I’ve been aware of it or not.

“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… 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.”

One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it is simultaneously self-contained and expansive. The entire novel takes place over a single weekend, with most of the characters, conflicts, and themes laid out in the first chapter or two. From there, the same people go back and forth in the same places, over the same issues, and yet each new scene is a fresh moment of tension that spirals out from itself and grows toward confrontations that feel huge and breathless.

There are so many separate parts to this story, and yet they all circle the same problem: that letting a person of color through the door is not the only step required in ensuring they have the same opportunities as a white person. Wallace has a paid fellowship at the school, and yet he is constantly told he needs to “catch up.” He has a spot in a lab and a project to work on, but his labmates talk down to him and report him for things he hasn’t done. He has friends, but feels like they invite him out of obligation rather than a desire for his company. He’s having sex with the guy he has a crush on, but when Wallace reveals a trauma from his past, Miller reveals his guilt over hurting someone who didn’t deserve it, and is upset when Wallace won’t condole him. Wallace is stuck in cycles of being hurt, being unable to voice the problem without making things worse, and having to hold the hurt inside of himself as the only way to acknowledge when a wrong has been done and hold on to his humanity. So yes, technically he has the chance to get a biochemistry degree, but he feels like he must lose himself along the way- and what kind of opportunity is that? Not one that is equal to the opportunities his fellow students are experiencing, though many of them fail to spot the difference.

“Just because you say you’re sorry, or you say that someone doesn’t deserve something, does not erase the facts of what has or has not happened, or who has or has not acted. Wallace is tired.”

So much of this story is internal discord- Wallace does have agency and makes both good and bad choices, and the people around him do and say plenty that affects him, but Wallace isn’t trying to personally right an entirely wrong system. He’s trying to get by, as one does. The battles that he has with other people are typically one-on-one personal confrontations, mostly verbal. He’s wrestling with himself over how much unfairness he can take, and at what point the price of accepting it becomes too high. This shows both that the problem of racism is an ongoing issue, no matter what Wallace does or doesn’t do, and it shows some of the deep psychological affects that trying to live under racism can cause. It hurts seeing Wallace try to justify everyone’s shitty behavior, feeling like he “had it coming,” making excuses for others’ failures, or thinking he should have done something different to avoid being in the path of racism at all. There’s no avoiding it, of course. And Taylor doesn’t pull any punches in depicting just how toxic that can be.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved coming back to this book every time I picked it up and hated when I had to put it down. I suspect it’ll be appearing on my favorite reads of the year list. Really, I should’ve known I’d love this one, as Brandon Taylor was one of the contributors to Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture ed. by Roxane Gay, which made such an impact on me, so it should’ve been no surprise to find his writing so spot-on here as well. And I suspect the few overwritten wrinkles I saw will be hammered out of Taylor’s style as he goes; surely his next book will be even stronger. I can’t wait to read it.

 

The Literary Elephant

24 thoughts on “Review: Real Life”

    1. Ah, thanks for the link, I hadn’t seen this article yet and really enjoyed it! Real Life really does deserve a better reception than being tokenized as the queer Black book for the year, it’s such a strong and specific piece. I was shocked to see that he’d written it in just 5 weeks! There’s so much talent here. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I hope you’ll love it as much as I did when you get your copy!

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  1. Something I remembered (again) recently is that I’m one of those people who only note a character’s race if he/she/they are not white. It’s so problematic, but it’s what I’ve been trained to do my whole life. They way you used parenthesis to enclose the characters’ races is interesting to me; it suggests race is important, but perhaps not the main thing to know about a person? What made you decide to use the parenthesis?

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    1. Ah, I used the parentheses in this case because race and racism is definitely a focus of the book but ultimately I think this is a story about specific characters rather than “the Black experience” or any other sort of general typecasting. Wallace is black and gay and that’s important, but first and foremost he’s just a person speaking for himself, and not for all Black grad students or anything like that. Whereas in my last review, for Lot, while those characters were also specific, I did think they were being used to speak to a larger experience and thus it was important to note their identities more directly in order to pinpoint the larger issues being revealed. Which isn’t to say that Real Life’s messages don’t apply more broadly than this one fictional instance, just that it’s a book about Wallace, not a book about queer Black men. That Wallace IS a queer Black man is almost inconsequential… except to the extent that it shapes his own experience. I hope I’m making even a little sense, I’m having a hard time articulating the difference I’m drawing in the ways characters are being presented!

      I hadn’t really thought about noticing a character’s race the way you mention, but I suppose I also have a tendency not to specifically notice when a character is white though I do notice other races while reading- a sort of ingrained racism, I suppose, where the white character is seen as just a person whereas people of other races need qualifiers- problematic indeed, though I think it’s a habit that can be reversed! After reading several stories back to back this month that center non-white characters, I started something else from my reading list recently (My Dark Vanessa) and was immediately struck by how white it was, though race isn’t emphasized in the text.

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      1. This comment definitely makes sense, and I might text you more about it just so I can think through what I want to do on my blog. On the one hand, I don’t know why I need to mention characters’ races unless the book is about race (e.g. The Hate U Give where white, black and Asian characters are pointed out). On the other hand, by not mentioning race, I know readers are assuming white because we’ve been trained to see white as default, even picture white in our heads when we read before the character is described.

        One problem I have with books about “the perfect family” with “deep secretes” is they are VERY white, full of white people problems, and on top of that, I can’t relate (nor do I want to) to rich white people problems. I know My Dark Vanessa isn’t about rich white people, but your comment made me think more about my aversion to such book descriptions as what I put in quotes above.

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      2. I’m definitely just stumbling along and trying to figure things out as I go, but you’re always welcome to text about anything, I’m happy to discuss! 🙂 But it does seem that we’re mostly in agreement! I think you’re right about only mentioning character race if it’s significant to the book, like when racism is a major theme. Or if the book honors/celebrates a certain culture, like in a fantasy that features Nigerian or Middle Eastern customs, etc. that feels like part of the book’s main purpose. But if the themes are about grief or war or the dangers of time travel (etc) race doesn’t seem relevant to the book’s intent or the reader’s choice to pick it up.

        Yes! I think those very white books about family and secrets and wealth come back to another discussion we had recently about POC being sort of stuck with writing only in ways that are pleasing to white audiences. Too often I think when white readers reach for black books they want it to be about slavery or civil rights or “the black experience,” and thus those creators (and creators from other non-white races and nationalities) are less free to write about family and wealth and secrets, which makes them very white topics overall. That and the fact that systemic racism makes it harder for POC to have that sort of “perfect on the outside” family story construct to work with at all in the first place.

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      3. I know you added Leesa Cross-Smith to your TBR on Goodreads, and one thing I appreciate about her work is that she writes about people living their lives, and she is a black woman. If I remember correctly, she doesn’t want to write about the “black experience,” but the things she enjoys — flavored chapstick from the 90s is definitely on that list!

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      4. “Ultimately I think this is a story about specific characters rather than “the Black experience” or any other sort of general typecasting”—this makes me want to read the book even more. While I do appreciate stories that generalize about an experience, I notice that the ones that stay with me are those with characters really just speaking from their own experiences. And it was only when Melanie mentioned it that I realize I also implicitly assume a character was white and heterosexual until otherwise mentioned! And yes, MDV WAS so white. It would be unfair to criticize it on lack of diversity, but it definitely reveals a certain worldview.

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      5. Yay, I highly recommend Real Life! I hope you’ll love it as much as I did if you pick it up. 🙂 I feel the same, that books about a wider experience can be useful, but those that focus on specific characterization can really make the reader feel invested in a more personal way and ultimately can be more memorable. This one really strikes the balance well, at exposing a larger problem while allowing one unique voice and experience to shine.

        MDV does reveal a certain worldview through its whiteness. I think a lot about the book would have to be changed or would at least be perceived differently if it were to feature POC as any of the main characters; the statements it makes about abuse would be very different if that were the case. I think that gets to the heart of the problem with publishing and with reader expectations today in general- MDV is an incredible book about abuse. Whereas, it seems a POC version of MDV would have to be about abuse AND race; writers of color always seem expected to make race an “issue” that’s covered in the novel. It’s very hard to think of any books by Black authors, for instance, that aren’t about racism in some way. That’s incredibly and unfair and limiting. It reflects poorly on modern society. And, I think, shows part of why we expect a character to be white until told otherwise- if race isn’t brought up in the synopsis as a theme of the book, it’s automatic to assume the main characters will be white.

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      6. You’re right—had Vanessa been a person of color, discussions would have been about the intersection of racism and abuse; it’s only by having a white protagonist that the discussion can be ‘purely’ about abuse, if that’s how you can call it. And sometimes even if an author doesn’t want the book to be ‘about’ race, it might become about it with marketing it as a book by a person of color. We really do still have a long way to go. 😢

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  2. Great review! I love grad school settings and internal conflict, and I’m trying to read more books by black authors/featuring black MC’s – so this sounds all around amazing. A lot of the premise reminds me of the experiences of the two black PhD students in an academic department where I worked (one of whom graduated despite having an unsupportive advisor, and one of whom unfortunately ended up dropping the program). It sounds like there’s a lot of truth behind this story and I’m really interested to read it.

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    1. Thank you! It’s a fantastic book and it does sound like your interests would align with it perfectly. I think Taylor is able to reveal very clearly the level of opposition POC can face in higher education, especially in predominantly white fields. Increasing diversity is important, but it won’t be achieved in a day by pulling POC into spaces where adequate room isn’t being made for them. It’s an important distinction to note, and Taylor delivers it with nuance and emotion. Highly recommend picking it up if you get the chance!

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  3. so glad you enjoyed this!! its been one of my fav books of this year, i remember getting to the end of the audiobook and not wanting it to end because i was enjoying it so much 👌 Brandon Taylor is coming out with a short story collection next year called Filthy Animals, so i cant wait for that!!

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    1. Ooh, I’m glad you loved this one, it really does stand out as a favorite for me as well! So much was happening toward the end of the book that I really was shocked there weren’t more pages- I would’ve read a lot farther! And thanks for mentioning the story collection, I’ll have to add that to my TBR! I had read somewhere that he was working on another novel and didn’t realize he had other work coming out as well, that’s exciting!

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    1. Thank you! That quote came from my favorite passage in the book, it really spoke to me as well. Taylor really has a knack for getting to the heart of things in a very clear and powerful way. It’s definitely a book that’s changed my perspective a bit.

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