Reviews

Bent but Not Broken

A review of Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, “Real Life.”

Remaining insulated from the real world is no longer an easy choice for Wallace in Brandon Taylor’s novel, Real Life. After discovering his grad school biochem research had been contaminated by a jealous and racist peer, setting him back weeks if not months, he leaves the lab to meet with friends only to spend most of the time analyzing his relationship dynamic with each person. He quickly confirms that he does not truly belong among them nor the sea of other people moving along the pier. Despite being with a group at the campus hang-out spot, Wallace feels himself an outsider; an uninvited “plus one” at a wedding where the planner must begrudgingly fuss to accommodate him with a seat and a plate of food only for Wallace to reveal after all the effort that he’s allergic to seafood—the caterer’s only remaining dish.

Wallace’s struggle with place is rooted in self-hatred that is evident early , the reasons for which Taylor discloses artfully throughout the novel. The proceeding events force Wallace to come to terms with this hard truth, and though he cannot initially put his finger on it, he is considering life beyond the “safe space” of school, otherwise known as real life. He may finally be ready to see himself in a different light.

Unfortunately, Wallace rarely catches a break. His first sexual experience included violent provocation and ended with blood and bruises. His acceptance into the grad school program was amongst the first incoming class that included a black student in nearly 30 years and his peers treat him as if he is an affirmative action program entry, and the romantic relationship that he develops within the context of this novel begins with a racist joke directed toward him and is rife with physical and emotional violence. History repeats. Even when readers learn  of another layer of Wallace’s identity—that he is gay—it is after a female friend kisses him on the mouth playfully in front of her boyfriend. It doesn’t matter because he’s gay, right? Notably, his reflexive verbal response to the multi-tiered aggressions is, “it’s fine.” Nothing about Wallace is fine. Rage bubbles beneath the surface of his black skin waiting to boil over and burn those in his proximity, whether friend or foe.

The most important element of Taylor’s work is without a doubt his use of language. Although Wallace experiences numerous atrocities, Taylor somehow keeps us evenly paced and able to withstand the horror. Wallace has trouble expressing and even defending himself in the moment, but Taylor suffers no such failing. Wallace’s internal dialogue is razor sharp on his feelings about what’s happening. I would wager that Taylor’s use of language is more precise than Wallace’s research results (contamination aside). Perhaps because it is the intersectionality of being both black and gay and existing in a community that is not accepting of either that Wallace is able to articulate his frustration so poignantly, though never asserting himself in a visibly productive way (arguably the main flaw of the material).

When pouring a glass of water for Miller, a friend in the group who does not identify as gay but finds himself interested in a sexual relationship with Wallace, he sums up the range of emotions so eloquently it’s staggering: “Wallace stopped just short of that point, the point at which the water wavered on the very cusp of the container that meant to hold it, the point at which things swell to an unbearable height before giving way, the point at which something must either recede or break and extend.” Wallace is nearly always about to give way, but recedes, even when it matters most. Racism is as much a contaminant of the lab as is what’s left of Wallace’s unsalvageable experiment. When one of his peers begins lobbing slurs at him in an excruciating and ironic deluge of frustrated prejudice, he intellectualizes his way through most of it: 

“…he cannot say its real name. Because to say its real name would be to cause trouble, to make waves. To draw attention to it, as though it weren’t in everything already. He tried once, with Simone, to talk about the way Katie talks to him as though he is inept. He said to Simone, She doesn’t talk that way to anyone else, She doesn’t treat them like this. And Simone said, Wallace. Don’t be dramatic. It isn’t racism. You just need to catch up. Work harder.” 

The lab is relentless. He steps outside to be with his friends and is faced with a separate minefield of issues. At the novel’s conclusion, we aren’t sure how Wallace will address any of his looming problems: Miller’s violent tendencies, his labmates’ racism, condescension and apparent sabotage of his work, and his friends’ dismissive treatment of his feelings. What we do understand is the inevitability of his desire for more, which pushes him to give way, to break, and extend.

FICTION
Real Life
By Brandon Taylor
Riverhead Books
Published February 18, 2020

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