Real Life by Brandon Taylor

February 18th, 2021

Wallace, the protagonist of Real Life, is in a graduate program in biochemistry in an unnamed Midwestern city (it’s Madison). When the book opens, his father has been “dead for several weeks” but that isn’t his main concern: he’s just found that the lab experiment he’s been doing all summer is probably ruined, and he doesn’t think it’s an accident, though he can’t be sure. He meets his friends by the lake to hang out and take his mind off things, though he feels like he’s always “stuck on the edges” of his friend-group. The novel follows Wallace through the weekend, though we also get glimpses of his past—different events and conversations make him think of his childhood in Alabama, his parents and grandparents, and various moments of hurt and trauma. Science, and this grad program, were meant to be the place he would fit in, in addition to being a way for him to escape the South; his friends and lab-mates are meant to be his people. But he’s the only Black person in his cohort and his friend-group, and the racism of the white people around him (whether it’s pointed or unthinking) is yet another thing he has to deal with, mostly on his own. (He does have a Chinese American friend who’s in the same lab as him, but other than her, everyone he works with or is friends with is white.)

Much of the book ends up focusing on Wallace’s interactions with Miller, a guy he’s friends with but has also always had tension with: at a departmental party, Wallace made a crack about Miller’s outfit being an example of the “Greater Midwestern Trailer Park” look; Miller said something to Wallace, months later, in which he joked about “your people.” And then: “they fell into that chilly silence that comes between two people who ought to be close but who are not because of some early, critical miscalculation.” Miller and Wallace’s relationship shifts, over the course of the book, after they hook up (which comes as a surprise to both of them; Miller makes a point of saying he’s “not into guys”), though it remains antagonistic at moments, sometimes intensely so.

Meanwhile, Wallace is also trying to figure out if he should stay in the grad program or leave: he’s unhappy, but so is everyone around him, at least sometimes. How much of his unhappiness is just because grad school can be rough and science can be a slog? How much is due to other people’s racism and how it affects his daily life? Would he be happier doing something else? What does he actually want? As Wallace is navigating his own unhappiness, his friends are navigating theirs, too, whether in the form of relationship woes or guilt over past actions—but because the narration is focused on Wallace, we see more of his struggles, some of which his friends will never have to deal with because they’re white. Wallace thinks, for example, about how he tried to talk to the head of his lab, Simone, about how someone else in the lab “talks to him as though he’s inept.” “It isn’t racism,” Simone says, as if it can’t be. But as Wallace puts it to himself, “white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects”—when someone says something racist at a dinner party, and his friends don’t speak up, they can eventually forget about it: “this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened.”

I like that Real Life takes place over the course of a weekend: lots of things can happen over the course of a weekend, but not a lot necessarily gets resolved. And I like Taylor’s prose, which is writerly in a way that works for me, as in sentences like this: “The soccer boys had started shoving each other, the white of the shirts glowing, so many bright rectangles falling across each other like in a postwar painting.” This isn’t a light read, but it’s an engaging one.

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