Tag Archives: Book Review

‘Are you sure? I think you might just be overreacting’: The “Nothingness” of Microaggressions and Brandon Taylor’s ‘Real Life’

by Jasmin L.K. Smith

Courtesy of Riverhead Books

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.

Works Cited

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.

A Review of Russia, by Dmitri Trenin

by Pengyu Chen

           Dmitri Trenin declares in his preface that Russia is a book intended for readers who are unfamiliar with Russia’s history. As such, Trenin aims to present Russian history in a way which differs from the West’s understanding of Russia as “negative and controversial” (vii). In doing so, Russia takes the reader on a 200-page excursion of 120 years of Russian history, detailing the historical and political development, which explains much of Russia’s contemporary behaviour. Trenin treats Russia as having its own “version of exceptionalism,” which makes it distinct from other nations (8). He suggests that there is a “bedrock” underneath Russia that continues to strengthen the “core features of the nation’s existence, its self-image, and its worldview” and that the reader can only understand these changes by examining the “collective experience” of the Russian people (3). The book’s central thesis holds that, while Russia has experienced changes to its ruler and government, it nonetheless remains a “succession of states and represents the continuity of a country” precisely because Russian society has retained the core features which make it exceptional (9). Trenin presents two momentous and recurring features which have shaped the last 120 years of Russia’s political development. First, Russia’s strong rejection of foreign domination persists alongside her acquiescence toward domestic authoritarianism (9). Second, Russia’s “essentially lonely” nature (despite having a high degree of contact with other countries) (9). And Russia’s frequent contact with foreign countries is often the source of external threats and modernization (9). While his analysis of Russia’s ‘loneliness’ is a noteworthy observation, the reader should pay more attention to how Trenin imagines the boundary of Russia, as well as what he means by being Russian.

            Russia gives the reader a quick survey of Russia’s 20th century, presenting important themes such as culture, economy, society, and ideology. The reader will learn about the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian arts, the New Soviet Man, refugees escaping Communist Russia, the GULAG, economic developments and policies, protest movements, state-society relations, and much more. Trenin’s discussion of the state and its leaders, foreign relations, and elite politics is the most emphasized component. By giving a brief historical account of Russian history—from the 1917 Russian civil war to Putin’s 21st-century ascension—through which he illuminates the causes of critical events, Trenin highlights the persistent and significant role of a strong state and authoritarian leader in providing stability during times of upheaval in Russia’s history. Further, Trenin asserts that evil consequences often ensue after state collapse (179).

            Tracing the collective experience of the Russian people, Trenin makes the case that while leaders of Russia had extraordinary agency in shaping the country’s political trajectory, it is the enduring feature of the people’s will to reject foreign domination of Russia at the expense of their “own domestic sovereignty vis-a-vis [the state]” that prevented the breakdown of Russia in challenging times (9). Trenin believes that this forfeiture of individual autonomy to the authoritarian rule at home is the “supreme national value” and is deeply embedded in the “Russian psyche” (7, 9). However, while there is much evidence one can point to, such as the 1812 Napoleonic War, or the Great Patriotic War, there is also ample evidence that challenges the reading that Russians see their submission to authority as a “supreme national value.” Notably, Trenin himself remarks that the 1905 and 1917 peasant revolutions in Tsarist Russia were a key pretext for the rise of the Bolsheviks (26-34). Also, he notes that many Russians fled to Europe to escape Communist rule (125). Furthermore, considering Pyotr Stolypin’s implementation of martial law, Lenin’s Cheka, Stalin’s Purge, and the tradition of the Russian security agency, all to maintain social stability, fearing uprising and unrest from societal groups, the reader should seriously question the merit of Trenin’s argument that there has been a consensus, tacit or explicit, between the ruled and the ruler on the “supreme national value,” even in times of crisis (9).

            Moreover, the reader is left wondering, by the end of the book, whether Trenin’s claim about the recurring core feature of Russian’s acquiescence toward authoritarianism (and the persistent pattern of authoritarianism itself) will continue to be a ‘recurring’ feature. Indeed, Trenin himself points to the possibility that generational change and existing political conditions could lead to a state that is less authoritarian in nature (163). Even though Putin and the state are authoritarian, the establishment of democratic electoral institutions and a growing middle class in Russia could one day transform this core recurring feature.

            To be more charitable, the reader can concede that Trenin is suggesting an account that Russian exceptionalism derives from a transcendental conception of Russia as a nation that conceives an amorphous territory and a population that inheres Russia’s millennium-long history and the two core recurring features as its national mentality and traits. However, it is equally important to examine who are the “Russian people” and what Russia is as an “unbroken whole” (9, 11). While Trenin explains what Russia is not—that today’s Russia is not a different country from the USSR and the Russian Empire—he fails to give an affirmative account of what Russia is. Indeed, there is not a definitive answer to this, and expecting Trenin to answer it persuasively in a 200-page book is unreasonable. Nevertheless, this absence should make the reader (re)consider his formulation of Russia as an “unbroken whole.” The fact that Russia’s territory has been reduced substantially after the collapse of the Russian Empire and again after the dissolution of the USSR has central implications for the conception of Russia. This geopolitical decline seriously challenges his conception of Russia as a whole, given that many of the populations formerly belonging to the Russian Empire and USSR are not a part of contemporary Russia. It is also questionable to claim the population who were once within the territory of the Russian Empire and the USSR as “Russians.” According to NKVD records, “half-million Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Belarusians fought the Soviets in rural areas” (Colton 53). Also, anti-Soviet ethnonationalist movements during and after the Soviet rule also challenge Tenin’s reading of Russia as an “unbroken whole” (153-154).

            Trenin’s account of the second core feature is more compelling and conforms to the charitable reading of Russia as a nation that persistently embodies “a Russian psyche” In the last 120 years, Russia has been lonely and exceptional in its vain search for national security amidst an unfriendly, modernizing world. Japan challenged Russia’s presence in the Far East, leading to a major defeat in 1905 for the Russian Empire (25-26). In 1917 Russia was forced to fight against Germany but was never invited to the 1919 Versailles peace conference and the League of Nations (46). In the 1930s, Britain and France had little concern for the fate of the USSR, so Russia, relying on itself, was pressured into signing a non-aggression pact with Germany (78-79). Trenin argues that Russia had to rely on itself in challenging times and thus often finds itself isolated. Indeed, increased connectivity with China, Britain, and the U.S. in the 1940s ended soon thereafter upon the rise of the Cold War. Meaningful and friendly engagement with the West since then never occurred, despite the disintegration of the Union and the introduction of capitalism and electoral democracy in the 1990s (145-146). Confrontation with the U.S. and NATO became more real after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria (173-174). However, its relationship with China grew closer (174). Russia, Trenin argues, has been estranged from the West but is “by no means isolated” (173-174). Indeed, current events support Trenin’s analysis: the ongoing Russian-Ukraine War has deteriorated US-Russia and EU-Russia relationship while Russia has become closer to China.

            The reader can strengthen Trenin’s account of Russia’s relative isolation by arguing that Russia’s geography and historical legacies played a deterministic role in shaping the political attitude and choices of the Russian elites. Russia is vast, remote, and difficult to access by sea. While this geographical limit prevented Russia from naval invasions, it also foreclosed the reach of sea merchants and the exchange of ideas (Poe 49). The centrality of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia’s closed borders also stifled any intellectual and cultural exchange with the West (Poe 41). Moreover, the relative proximity with Western Europe—and the extraordinary technological and military ascendance of the former circa 1500-1600—threatened Russia and agitated its reform process, eventually producing a distinctly Russian form of social organization (Poe 38-57).

            Even if the reader rejects the persistent “bedrock” underneath Russia, Trenin’s analysis of Russia’s political pattern—1) authoritarian rule as a persistent feature and 2) relative isolation—offers a good measure by which the reader can judge Russia’s contemporary political development. When the authoritarian state is absent, Russia will likely reverse into political instability (9). Trenin suspects that “a political crisis following Putin’s final departure is virtually pre-programmed” (162). And, while Trenin makes clear in Russia’s conclusion that post-Putin Russia might not embrace liberal capitalism and conform partially to the West, his analysis of Russia’s relative isolation gives freshness and trenchancy to his interpretation of a “Russian’s Russia” and provide the non-specialist reader with a good historical account of where “Russia is coming from.”


Colton, Timothy J. Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Poe, Marshall T. The Russian Moment in World History. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Trenin, Dmitri. Russia. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.