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!
In 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