Title: Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: 18 February 2020
Genre: Adult | Literary fiction
Page extent: 336 pages
Goodreads blurb: Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.
Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.
Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
I find it horrendously difficult to review literary fiction because you want to live up to the intense delight and specificity of the prose and I can just never manage to do so. It can also be so difficult to talk about a book in which very little happens, that is so reflective and contemplative as Real Life. But I’ll try! I really enjoyed Real Life. Outside of my more frequent genres of reading, it is such an expressive and contemplative journey of a queer Black man questioning his existence.
Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black, Southern man from Alabama, who’s at graduate school at a very white Midwestern university studying biochemistry. After an unexpected encounter with a friend he thought was straight, Wallace is forced to confront his life, his misery, his past trauma, and his very existence in a world he feels so on the edge of.
Real Life isn’t a book with a huge ton of action or drama. Instead, we follow Wallace from the inside. It’s a highly contemplative novel, and one that evokes pain not dissimilar to being brutally punched in the chest several times. Many times throughout reading, I paused and sat there with that feeling of a hole in my chest, taught with anger and the unfairness at how Wallace is treated, and the way he is living life so devoid of happiness. We see the way a hugely traumatizing event as a child has impacted on every relationship in his life, how his parents reactions have forced him into a man who struggles to centre himself and his feelings and hurt in the world, thinking them so worthless to others. He works so hard to please others, at the expense of his own feelings. It was particularly difficult and confronting to read the passages where Wallace considers the racism and microaggressions he is faced with for being Black, both at his University and in his friendship group. To see the stark effect of these constant attacks on Wallace. To see him so without hope, without happiness, so empty. To see himself ostracised even within a group of friends, because of the silence of those supposed to care about him.
Taylor’s prose is an easy, flowing read for literary fiction (which I so often find overwrought and pretentious). But this wasn’t. It felt very tenderly crafted, each word chosen so carefully to pull the reader into Wallace’s emotional state, almost hurting to the point of numbness at times, as Wallace was. It is beautifully and evocatively written. We spend most of the novel in Wallace’s head, as this story is highly reflective as Wallace considers his place in his friendship group and in this new relationship. As a lot of literary fiction tends to be, there is no hugely satisfactory AHA moment, when the villains get what they deserve. Much like life, this story isn’t happy. As much as I longed for there to be a moment for Wallace’s friends to be taken down a peg, for them to suffer for how they’ve made Wallace suffer, part of the most painful and powerful moments of this book is in the realisation at the end that sometimes you don’t get that moment. And that this story could so easily be not a story, but someone’s life. That moment is painful, in the recognition that this is life for a lot of people, but powerful because in knowing and recognising that, we can fight within ourselves and in those around us to change.
Real Life definitely deserves the praise and acclaim it has been receiving. Very inwardly focused and reflective, it’s a very evocative book, one that will have you crying alonngisde Wallace as be contemplates his life.