Words by Paige Braithwaite

“Real Life” is the debut novel by author Brandon Taylor that follows a young Black man named Wallace over the course of a hot and heady weekend at post-graduate college in the Midwest of America. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, this novel excels in its complex exploration of Wallace’s identity as a gay black man raised in Alabama. Surrounded in his post-graduate studies by his group of white friends and colleagues, Taylor depicts the difficult navigation of prejudice and privilege that Wallace encounters. Over the course of a dinner party, a friend unabashedly enlightens him to the lesser prospects he has a black man, with the uncomfortable silence and lack of defence from the rest of the group being exposed as the unfortunate norm. Taylor has made clear Wallace is not meant to be a representation of himself, but there are autobiographical elements in the racist and classist discrimination that he encounters. Taylor wished to write a campus novel that reflected his own experience and that of others he knows.

The writing style is hugely intimate – both in the personal connections between characters that are explored and the minutiae of Wallace’s thoughts and feelings that we are invited into. Wallace remains on guard to all those around him, but as the reader, we gain exclusive insight into his psyche. Taylor’s novel has an unwavering focus on the tiny details in the interactions and physical tendencies of the characters. By exposing the transparency of small physicality that clearly shows the true thoughts or feelings of the character, Taylor makes the reader reflect on the potential transparency of their own behaviour. 

The atmosphere of slow and sweltering summer days is effortlessly conjured by Taylor. Leisurely dinners, tennis games and boat trips on the lake contrast to the painful feeling of not belonging that Wallace experiences throughout the novel. Speaking of how you must “live inside” a novel when writing it, Taylor has relayed how he wrote this book in only five weeks – so he could then get on with his life. “Real Life” draws you into an intense experience much like Taylor must have experienced in writing it. The main plot is interspersed by lengthy descriptions of Wallace’s post-graduate biochemistry experiments that sometimes detracts from the flow of the narrative. But on the other hand, these sections add to the in-depth observations of life that Taylor writes about – be it human life or small organisms in a petri dish.

 “Real Life” is a story about loneliness and solitude even when surrounded by so many people. Wallace’s fractious – and sometimes troublesomely violent – relationship with his friend Miller exposes a yearning and longing for connection, amidst the other griefs and traumas throughout this life.  We learn how Wallace has always kept a cautious distance from the friends he considers closest – with much left unsaid and even significant life events not shared, with this only contributing to his feelings as an outsider. In an interview, Taylor speaks about how his novel is about “conversations and confrontations” and these interactions become so seamlessly intertwined, that you begin to see potential underlying meanings in everything that is said. 

Taylor has crafted a hugely emotive novel that grapples with identity, connection, and the difficulty of knowing what path your life should take. You become absorbed into the weekend alongside Wallace, into the friendships and into Wallace’s head on his search for a bond, for recognition and the answers to where he should be.

Categories: Arts Books

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