by Jasmin L.K. Smith
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is a beautiful, silent, creeping story of Black sexuality and the hidden anti-Black aggressions of academia. When I finished this novel, I was at Old Mill Station, sitting on the TTC on my way home from class on a chilly September night, not quite a flashbulb memory, but very close given the impact this story had on me. This is a novel that I will always recommend, and, having faced racism in an academic setting on multiple crushing occasions, it is a novel that brought me to tears. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is a love letter to every Black academic, acknowledging the frustrating microaggressions deeply embedded into academic structures that often go ignored by our peers, but, more importantly, it is also a love letter to himself.
Brandon Taylor’s debut novel is a novel, seemingly, about nothing. When I had first read the climax, I had to go back and read it over again to confirm that it was, in fact, the climax. I easily fell in love with Taylor’s ability to accurately portray such a multi-dimensional situation, a life being lived; the ‘nothingness’ of the novel was not like watching paint dry, or waiting for water to boil, it was like a walk through the woods at night, hoping and praying for nothing to jump out. It was beautiful and tragic and redeeming, and it felt like, for the first time, I had the words and the stories that I had always been in search of.
Real Life begins with Wallace, the only Black student in his PhD program at a university in Alabama, going to the lake to meet his friends. The scene introduces his group of five, all of which are white PhD students that attend the same school. Throughout the novel, Taylor builds characters that anybody could encounter in their academic career, with the honesty of portraying Wallace as someone that often feels like an outsider within the cliquey dynamic of his friends.
In the laboratory where he spends much of his time, Wallace is subjected to impatience, frustration, and thinly veiled racism from the other scientists around him. Out of the lab’s characters, Brigit is the only redeemable personality, being a loyal and compassionate friend to Wallace. Much of his time in the lab portrayed in the novel is spent attempting to restart research that had been ruined by Dana, a scientist in the lab that seems to hate Wallace for no reason. Of course, the explanation for Dana’s behavior is much less simple, and her constant attempts to alienate and typecast Wallace make it very obvious that her behaviors are microaggressions. To outsiders, or non-Black people that have never had to see a woman’s knuckles turn white around her purse strap the moment you walk into a room, microaggressions often seem absurd, and they are often dismissed as being a figment of Black imaginations. Being Black, particularly in academia where faculty and peers refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room, it is unimaginably frustrating to experience the same daily patterns of small, racist acts and get told that they are being imagined. Taylor doesn’t beat around the bush with his depiction of microaggressions, he does not shy away from the frequency of them, nor does he create a magical solution to them for the sake of narrative. As is the nature of microaggressions in real life, nobody believes Wallace when he tries to speak up. Rather than someone recognizing Dana’s behavior as stemming from racism, Wallace is blamed for creating a toxic environment in their lab.
The microaggressions don’t end at Dana, who non-Black readers could dismiss as being raised in a racist environment or simply hateful of Wallace’s success, but it continues into Wallace’s own friend group. At a dinner party with every single one of his friends– save for Brigit– in attendance, Wallace’s thoughts of leaving his program are openly shut down because of what Roman, a friend of a friend, calls his “deficiencies” (Taylor 109). Prior to using this term, Roman describes how, without his doctorate, Wallace would suffer because of “the prospects for . . . black people” (108). He continues to describe Wallace’s thoughts of leaving as selfish and ungrateful, because Wallace apparently owes his department for even being so gracious as to let him in. The entire table is privy to the conversation between the two of them, but no one says a word, nobody makes any attempt to stand up for Wallace, or address the very obvious racism from Roman. During the encounter, “Wallace can only taste ashes in his mouth,” and reading the scene, I felt much the same (109). Despite the feelings of irreverence that I had towards the characters in Taylor’s constructed world at that moment, I had been in situations entirely too similar, and just as off-putting and disharmonious.
Wallace’s most poignant relationship is the one that he shares with Miller, a friend of his that swears to be straight in spite of his ongoing affair with Wallace. Miller often downplays the situation between him and Wallace, hiding it away from the world. Wallace is made, as he was in his childhood, to feel dirty, to feel like he is the one to be blamed. Despite the constant, underlying pulse of wanting Miller to do and be better, Miller never changes, he is always the wolf of the fable. What’s worse is Wallace’s easy acceptance of the way he is treated by Miller, and even their other friends; he cannot see himself ever being in the right, he is alway on the offering end of an unneeded apology.
We, as readers, get to earnestly consider the complexities of Wallace’s grief, having been a victim of his father’s cruelty in the past, and presently refusing to acknowledge that he is even experiencing grief for someone that had cared for him so little. Wallace must reconcile with the fact that he may not fit in at his university, but he may not have fit in during his childhood either. So what does that leave him with? What kind of place can he make for himself with what he has left? Though Wallace may seem like a pushover at some points, throughout the story he allows himself to think the thoughts that scare us too much to examine ourselves. He has spent years of his life in a scientific field, and he has gotten as far as being in a doctorate program, but he is now doubting whether it is something he really wants. After losing so many years of his life on his program, even entertaining the thought of leaving is brave, and it’s not something that many people would consider doing themselves. Wallace is not thinking of quitting because of the difficult dynamics of his program, but because maybe he has spent his entire academic career being driven by the opposite; maybe his academic career wasn’t in spite of others, but to prove that he could survive their spite.
Wallace’s story is painfully relatable and uncompromisingly truthful, and much of that is because it is semi-autobiographical to Taylor’s own life. Taylor himself had been born and raised in Alabama, and he dropped out of his own PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue writing (Wheeler). His own university experiences were often filled with microaggressions and dissonance, well reflected in the progression of Wallace’s story in Real Life. Taylor “didn’t write this book for the white gaze,” he wrote it for people like his “queer, black friends” that felt as if modern campus novels didn’t “represent [them] in any sort of substantive way” (Wheeler). Though the novel does create a digestible framework for non-Black people to understand how deeply racism is embedded into academia, the novel’s purpose is not to educate, it is to show Black students, Black lovers of academia, that their experiences are real and their stories are worth being told. As a Black student, it is incredibly difficult to love an institution that will always be systemically against you, but Taylor understands it, and Wallace lives it.
Wallace’s struggles throughout Real Life do not fall on opposite ends of a spectrum, they don’t go from a bad hair day to saving the world from an apocalypse, no, Wallace’s problems are mundane; from silent, internal mental health issues, to being on the losing end of a difficult situationship. Wallace has problems that you would hear friends talking about over coffee, or see questions on an advice blog about. In an interview with the writers at the Booker Prize Foundation, Brandon claims “close observation” to be “how [he makes sense] of the world” (Booker Prize Foundation). His concentrated, persistent scrutinization of the regular and mundane creates a story that feels so exacting and sharp that, at points, it feels almost monumental in the way that it encapsulates a life lived. I struggle to find words to describe the various complete and incomplete feelings I was left with at the book’s finish because ‘mundane’ reduces it to something unworthy of a read. Real Life is melancholic, celebratory, validating, and unrelenting, but, above all else, it is honest.
Booker Prize Foundation. “Brandon Taylor Q&A.” The Booker Prizes, 2020, https://thebookerprizes.com/brandon-taylor-interview-real-life.
Taylor, Brandon. (2020). Real Life. Riverhead Books.
Wheeler, André. “’I didn’t write this book for the white gaze’: black queer author Brandon Taylor on his debut novel.” The Guardian, 5 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/05/brandon-taylor-author-real-life-interview.