Of Campus Life and Past Traumas
When the nominees for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction were released, many were pleasantly surprised. The Booker Prize was traditionally dominated by popular and well-established writers, such as Margaret Atwood, who won the award twice and has been shortlisted a whopping six times; Nobel Laureate in Literature Kazuo Ishiguro who won once but has been shortlisted four times; and Salman Rushdie, the author of the Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children. In a laudable effort to step away from this mold, the 2020 longlist abounded with the works of first-time novelists; eight of the thirteen books were debut novels. Three of these debut novels would eventually be shortlisted for the award, with the 2020 Booker Prize awarded to Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain.
One of these three shortlisted debut novels was Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. His friend and co-fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, missed out on the shortlist. In his debut novel, Taylor zeroed in on the story of Wallace, a gay Black student who grew up in a small town in Alabama. He moved to a university town in the Midwest to pursue his doctorate in degree in biochemistry. Wallace earned the distinction of being the first Black student in decades to be admitted to the unnamed, predominantly White university’s graduate program; he was also the only Black student in his course.
The heft of the action in the story took place over a weekend. It was the last weekend of Summer before Wallace’s fourth year at the graduate program. To celebrate this landmark achievement, Wallace was invited by his friends for a weekend party. Being himself, he was at first reluctant. His estranged father has just passed away a couple of weeks before and he was trying to come to terms with how he felt. He also felt like his experiment on nematodes, mentioned in the opening sequence of the story, was sabotaged by one of his labmates. He was even contemplating the possibility of leaving the program. Despite the personal turmoil he was experiencing, he eventually relented to his friends’ invitation. What ensued was a chain of events that neither Wallace nor his friends will ever forget.
“This could be their life together, each moment, shared, passed back and forth between each other to alleviate the pressure, the awful pressure of having to hold time for oneself. 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.”~ Brandon Taylor, Real Life
It was palpable from the onset that Wallace was naturally introverted and reticent. Even though he gained a circle of friends while staying at the university, he made the conscious decision to remain at a safe distance from them. He was, for the most part, an outsider looking in. As the weekend moved forward, memories and details of Wallace’s life started to float to the surface: Memory sifts. Memory lifts. Memory makes due with what it is given. Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life. The present alternates with these memories and through these flashbacks, memory became a seminal device in unspooling Wallace’s story. As the past and present converge, a vivid portrait of Wallace started to emerge.
Sifting through the details of his memories and flashbacks, we uncover the major contributors to Wallace’s reticence and introversion. The house he grew up in was far from the product of fairytales; it was a house permeated with poverty. His homosexuality created a crevassed between him and his father. The gash was so deep that Wallace willfully refused to attend his father’s funeral. The relationship he had with his father was no walk in the park either. It was a traumatic childhood, to say the least, and when the opportunity to escape from the suffocating house of horrors presented itself, Wallace did not hesitate to take the ticket out. It was a reflex action that most of us can relate to. Leaving home in search of reprieve was a form of escapism but it was also a leap of faith, a form of growth.
As we grow up, we realize that in order for us to grow, we must unshackle ourselves from the chains that hold us to the ground. In hindsight, this was what Wallace realized. However, he soon learned that the alternative was not the rosy one he had in mind. It was not the fresh start he was hoping for. Finding himself in the midst of White spaces, he started to feel a strong sense of alienation. There was a feeling of isolation that resonated throughout his life at the campus. For the most part, he felt unsure of himself, and of the strange world of Academia he was partaking of. For his past traumas, Wallace longed for a world that will embrace him. This was also coupled with his yearning for a strong sense of himself. His so-called friends and his graduate school life, unfortunately, provided him with either.
Wallace was the nucleus of the story. In his story, we were provided with details of the academe, with particular emphasis on the tediousness of graduate school life. While the novel was a vivid rendering of campus life, it didn’t reduce itself into a mere exploration of this subject as it expounded on both local and global concerns. One of the seminal subjects tacked in Real Life is racism. Being one of the only few Black individuals in the community, Wallace experienced various manifestations of racism, some overt and some palpable. One vivid example of his racist experiences includes being suspected as a drug dealer at the campus store. At one campus party he attended, he was asked if he was lost. The most impactful image, however, was an interaction he had with a French student. His fellow student pointed out that he should be grateful for his admission to the program for it is a rare opportunity provided to People of Color (POC). POCs should be thankful for such opportunities, notwithstanding their hard work to pass the admission.
“Being so aware of their bodies makes him aware of his own body, and he becomes aware of the way his body is both a thing on the earth and a vehicle for his entire life’s history. His body is both a tangible self and his depression, his anxiety, his wellness, his illness, his disordered eating, the fear of blood pouring out of him. It is both itself and not itself, image and afterimage. He feels unhappy when he looks at someone beautiful or desirable because he feels the gulf between himself and the other, their body and his body. An accounting of his body’s failures slides down the back of his eyes, and he sees how far from grace he’s been made and planted.”~ Brandon Taylor, Real Life
But the novel’s exploration of racism was not limited to Wallace’s personal experiences. Wallace struggled with his own internalized racism; he was unable to identify when racism was experienced by others. Internalized racism was also depicted through Wallace’s association of blondness to beauty. Apart from racism, destitution, grief, and campus life, the novel also explored abuse in all its manifestations, from sexual to physical to psychological. The novel abounded with several instances of oppression and microaggressions. This was portrayed in his relationship with Miller, one of the “friends” he meet on that fateful weekend. However, Miller projected himself as “straight”. Together, they forged a manic and clandestine relationship that was brimming with abuse and violence. The salacious details of their tumultuous relationship were captured in evocative details.
One leitmotif that accentuated the story pertains to the definition of “real life”. It was, after all, how the novel was advertised. At several points in the story, we find Wallace contemplating what real life entails. Through these contemplations, dichotomies were highlighted, particularly on the life inside and outside of the campus. However, there is not one single definition for what real life is; it comes in different forms and is dependent on how one views it. For instance, Wallace viewed real life as taking on a real job and earning compensation. On the other side of the spectrum, there are among us people who spend lifetimes in “programs”. But on a deeper level, real life is also one that is mired with hopelessness, trauma, and abuses that one tries to escape from but can never fully forget.
In Wallace, Taylor created an evocative character study. Exploring Wallace’s family history, and his experiences at the campus, the readers were slowly reeled into his world. It was a labyrinth with no single way out. Taylor regaled the readers with Wallace’s troubled mind. His longing and vulnerabilities were both vividly captured by Talor with honesty. The loneliness and the suffocating feeling of isolation were vividly portrayed in the story. At the same time, he remained a cipher to those around him. His mind was akin to a vault, a secretive and steely subterranean world. “You are so determined to be unknowable,” one of his friends told him at one point. However, as the story underscored, the mind may be good at concealing things, it cannot totally erase them.
With the focus on Wallace through flashbacks, it was palpable that it was bereft of a solid plot. Nevertheless, it didn’t weigh down on the story as it was brimming with fine elements that were masterfully hewn together by Taylor’s prose. It had a descriptive quality to it that conjured vivid images. Campus life was evocatively captured by the descriptive quality of Taylor’s storytelling. The descriptive quality was complemented by an intimate and contemplative voice that hovered above the story. The measured prose captured the intimate details of Wallace and his life. Real Life is well-written although there were parts that felt bloated and the metaphors became excessive and demanding.
“That he wants to be alone. That he does not want to speak to anyone. That he does not want to be around anyone. That the world has worn him down. That he would like nothing more than to slip out of his life and into the next. That he is terrified, afraid. That he wants to lie down here and never move again. What he means is that he does not know what he wants, only that it is not this, the way forward paved with words they’ve already said and things they’ve already done. What he wants is to break it all open and try again.”~ Brandon Taylor, Real Life
Despite the beauty of the novel’s language and its captivating storytelling, there were parts that it fell short on. For a coming-of-age story, Wallace barely exhibited any character development. Rather than transforming into a better individual because of his experiences, he remained passive, if not, he even digressed. It didn’t help that he surrounded himself with vile individuals who are simply violent and hateful. None of them, including Wallace, was particularly likable. It was also lamentable that the novel barely addressed the major concerns it has highlighted, particularly racism and oppression. In the passivity of Wallace’s character, these were never explicitly dealt with. Wallace was a magnet for toxic relationships and yet he always return to these relationships; he never learned. It was rueful that there was no healing or even growth.
Over the years, if one is to observe deeper, most debut novels are imbued with details of the author’s own life. In this sense, Wallace and Taylor share several parallels: their homosexuality, their childhood, and even their profession. Taylor, however, dropped out of his doctorate degree in biochemistry to pursue a career in literature. And if his debut novel was any indication, it was a pivot towards the right direction. Real Life was no perfect prose but it nevertheless showcased the strengths and promises of Taylor’s prose. Beyond its faults and blunders, Real Life was still a laudable debut novel that dealt with several timely and seminal subjects from racism, to abuse, and to homosexuality. At its heart, Taylor’s debut novel provided the readers with an intimate character study that delved into interpersonal dynamics. Parts-campus story, parts-coming-of-age story, Real Life is the portrait of an individual who wants to experience “real life”, and find his own place amidst the strifes and traumas that abound in every corner.
Characters (30%) – 16%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%
One of the 2020 Booker Prize longlisted works that immediately piqued my interest was Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. Even though I barely had any iota on what the book was about, I was excited to read the book, especially considering the hype around the book. It also helped that he is a close friend of C Pam Zhang, whose debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, was also longlisted for the Booker Prize and was one of my favorite reads in 2020. After Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (also the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize), Real Life was my second book on the shortlist. The premise immediately caught my attention and I really thought that it was promising. Dealing with Wallace’s struggles adjusting to a university town not his own, Real Life was an intimate work imbued with details of the author’s own experiences. However, the story took time to unfold, and even when it did, it lost my interest. The characters were mostly unlikeable but what weighed down on me was how the major concerns were addressed. It was still an interesting campus novel that flourished with Taylor’s descriptive prose.
Author: Brandon Taylor
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 327
Genre: Literary Fiction, Bildungsroman
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 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.
About the Author
Brandon Taylor was born in 1989 in Prattville, Alabama, United States. He was raised in a small community outside of Montgomery. He studied chemistry at Auburn University Montgomery before pursuing a graduate biochemistry program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was about to pursue his doctorate at the same university but left in 2016 to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop of the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow. He also received a fellowship from the Lambda Literary Foundation in 2017 and from Kimbilio Fiction and the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Eventually pursuing a literary career, Taylor’s short stories were featured in venues such as Guernica, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Kink: Stories, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gay Mag, The Literary Review, LitHub, The Millions, Electric Literature, Necessary Fiction, and The New Yorker online. In 2020, he published his debut novel, Real Life, a book he wrote in about five weeks. It was warmly by literary pundits and was even shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was also longlisted for the 2020 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and the Young Lions Fiction Award. The novel was also listed by The New York Times as one of “100 Notable Books of 2020”. In 2021, Taylor released Filthy Animals, a collection of short stories. He is currently working on his second novel, Group Show.
Taylor currently resides in Iowa City, Iowa. He is also the senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Lit Hub.