In the past few years, it’s become trendy for mainstream news outlets to send reporters deep into the heart of Trump country, searching for anecdotes about what real people think. This hunt assumes that people sitting in a certain kind of diner, in a certain kind of place, have tapped into some great vein of American truth. Wallace, the deeply introspective protagonist of Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, is both immersed in and alienated by this supposedly default culture. A black man attending a masters program in biochemistry at a midwestern university, for Wallace questions of belonging and authenticity are deeply personal, and impossible to ignore. Over the course of a weekend, we see him grapple with some of them: Is grad school a real profession? Is a gay relationship, let alone one with a closeted man, a real relationship? Are the racial microaggressions he feels targeted by real? Are roasted vegetables real food?
The novel opens on a seemingly bucolic scene: a group of friends sitting at an open-air beer garden near a lake. From the novel’s point of view, though—a third-person perspective closely attached to Wallace’s insecurities—the lake is polluted, the conversation is heated, and all of Wallace’s friends hate him. This tension between Wallace’s desire for intimacy and the confines of his insecurity will inform the rest of the book. His group of friends comprise a typology of contemporary gay male relationships (territory Taylor has covered adeptly in his short fiction): There is the closeted one, the couple in a long term relationship that’s losing its vitality, the two who are in love despite being committed to other people, the girl whose boyfriend is jealous of her close friendship with a gay man, and the hedonist circuit queen who thinks he’s better than everyone else.
The lake party also forces Wallace into closer proximity with Miller, an outwardly straight man who Wallace feels a connection with, rooted in their similar socio-economic backgrounds and shared discomfort with an institution that would not have welcomed earlier generations of their families. But this connection is chilled when Miller, who is white, makes a joke about Wallace’s race; from that point on, Wallace’s genuine attraction and comfort with Miller is tempered by the knowledge that at any moment, Miller might turn ugly. Their relationship is intense but halting as they struggle through their differences and emotional baggage.
Like Ocean Vuong’s luminous novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (but unlike many other representations of contemporary gay men), Real Life unfolds outside of a major coastal city. All of Wallace’s relationships, and especially his relationship with Miller, are shaded by homophobia—both external and internalized. As in Vuong’s book, these characters are not idealized versions of woke queers who have closely read their gender studies textbooks—they are the products of a homophobic context, and perpetuate it through internalized homophobia. “‘We’re gay, not queer,’” one character notes midway through the novel, effectively othering themselves from the other. In real life, there is a burgeoning movement to reclaim the word faggot; in Real Life, the novel, the word carries venom.
As an African-American man in a department, school, and state that is predominantly white, for Wallace race and racism are never far from the surface. Even the way he inhabits space is put under a microscope. The facts of this alienation are laid out for the reader: the favoritism in his lab, the whiteness of the bodies that threaten him, and the assumption that above all else, Wallace should be grateful to the university for allowing him to be in this position. Wallace is under no illusions about the way that his race impacts his life, yet his friends are mostly blind to it. After someone makes a racially insensitive comment at a dinner party, Taylor writes, “Only Wallace will remember it … [because] Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.”
There is a tension between Wallace’s own disillusionment, and what he believes is reasonable to expect from his friends and colleagues. This comes to a head in his interactions with Dana, a favorite student of their lab supervisor. When Dana accuses Wallace of being a misogynist, her shocking choice of words suggests that she is so preoccupied with legitimizing her victimization that she is unable to see her privilege. There is a form of gaslighting at work here, a gap between objective fact and Dana’s perception that makes Wallace doubt reality. Still, Wallace understands that the power structures of the university will not side with him. He does not report the incident; instead it makes him feel more vulnerable, and precipitates his departure from the lab.
Amid these anxieties, finding his place in the university is not Wallace’s only obstacle. His father has recently died, and that death sits with Wallace like “dark water… a knot of tension high in his chest… a black ball stuck to the inside of his lungs.” The complicated history that lies at the heart of his discomfort involves childhood abuse at the hands of a family friend, juvenile sexual relationships, and “a sizzling, glowing wire of hatred” for his father. Wallace hides this history from his friends, becoming “a different version of himself in the Midwest, a version without a family and without a past, made up entirely as he saw fit,” but this facade crumbles as, under mounting stress, he reveals his past to Miller. His confession prompts one in return: Miller is also the product of a violent history—but one in which he was the aggressor. Their love is rough and leaves bruises. In their relationship, hurt and reconciliation, hate and kindness, victimhood and harm sit next to each other like estranged siblings.
Although the biology lab is a site of racism, for Wallace it is also a kind of church. Taylor revels in descriptions of breeding nematodes and running protein preps. The language of biochemistry in the novel is deft, a fluency no doubt acquired during Taylor’s own graduate studies in that field. Early in the book, Wallace describes his work as “another kind of husbandry,” suggesting that the emotional connection he feels with microscopic organisms is like the relationship a shepherd has to his flock. In its discussions of race, relationships, and graduate school, Real Life recalls Weike Wang’s debut novel Chemistry—both are anxious narratives illuminated by precise, lush meditations on the beauty of science.
This is a dark novel. The landscape is blighted: lakes are filled with pond scum and bacteria and dead animals serve as ill omens. The main character suffers from anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia, and the abuse and cruelties that human beings visit on each other are never far from the page. Despite that, there is also kindness. When Wallace’s friends show their fondness for him, or when Miller is affectionate, the reader experiences a kind of dramatic irony: We see their intimacy in a way that the narrator himself is unable to.
At the close of the novel, Wallace considers which aspects of his life are real—the fish tank of graduate school, the primal hunger of his relationship with Miller, the numb fakery of his friendships—and finds all of them lacking. He and Miller swim in a lake amid the algae-bloom, and Wallace thinks back to his first encounter with the people who became his friends: at a bonfire at the same lake, the air filled with amicable possibility. In the end, he can only affirm, “I’m here… I’m in the world.” If nothing else, Wallace knows he exists. He is real, and so is his rejuvenated life.