“It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all.”
Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, is a precise and intimate narrative about coping with childhood trauma. Set over the span of just a few days, Taylor saturates his prose with empathetic and nuanced insights on race, sexuality and abuse.
Wallace, a gay Black student from Alabama, is currently studying biochemistry in a predominantly white doctoral programme. Having spent his entire summer working in the lab, the novel commences with the revelation that his experiment has been contaminated; To his dismay, he must start again. Over the next few days, Wallace becomes ensnared in a number of confrontations, which weigh heavily upon him, as he retreats further into himself, willingly disengaging from the world around him.
At the beginning of the narrative, Wallace’s friends discover that his father had passed away a few weeks prior. He had concealed this news, even failed to attend the funeral. Strangely indifferent to his father’s death, it becomes clear from the outset that their relationship was a distant and relatively unloving one. He doesn’t know how to grieve for a father he didn’t love.
Constructing his prose in a cold, muted manner, Taylor dissects Wallace’s psychological and emotional turmoil, as he comes to terms with his father’s death and his growing discontent with the world around him. Perpetually seeking solitude, Wallace deems himself incapable of merging seamlessly with the world around him. Real Life is a candid meditation on the effects of grief, loneliness and the layers of silence that run through the tendrils of Wallace’s life. His parents remained silent throughout his years of abuse. His friends remain silent in the face of overt racism. Even Wallace remains silent, refusing to unveil his history of abuse, retreating behind his introversion and withdrawn disposition.
A sense of alienation pervades the novel, as Wallace struggles to overcome his tormented past and find contentment. As the narrative slowly unveils his abusive childhood, he sinks deeper into an abyss of hopelessness and depression. Though he has escaped his family in the deep south, it is evident that he still carries his trauma with him, a haunting and persistent shadow that no amount of sunlight can dispel. He ponders on life’s cruelties, stating “It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty.” He seems to see and experience it everywhere.
Wallace embarks on a fraught yet impassioned romance with his white friend Miller, who presents himself as straight. This relationship only serves to exacerbate his anxiety, as the two lovers struggle to coalesce with one another, still restrained by the shackles of their pasts, internalised homophobia, and reluctance to expose their veiled, disordered selves to one another. Both men are afflicted by deeply buried personal tragedies, which provokes a complicated power dynamic, an affair of mingled violence and tenderness.
Some of the novel’s most poignant moments lie in Wallace’s incongruent and uncomfortable interactions with his peers. Surrounded by predominantly white friends, who lack any real understanding of racial injustice, Taylor highlights one of the many important messages of Real Life: silence is complicity. Whilst the racism Wallace experiences is sometimes nuanced and subtle, his friends refrain from speaking out, it being an oppression they are not directly afflicted by. A shocking moment occurs at a dinner party, when a mutual friend proceeds to label Black as a deficiency. Everyone is silent. No one reprimands his vile remark. For his white friends, this is just momentary awkwardness. For Wallace, this persistent and relentless racism suffocates him.
When he is falsely accused of misogyny by one of his lab partners, Wallace refrains from exposing her racist attitudes, stating “He could say one million things, but he knows that none would matter. None of it would mean anything to her, to any of them, because she and they are not interested in how he feels except as it affects them.” As the novel progresses, it becomes grievously clear that Wallace is so used to this prejudicial treatment, he has almost become accustomed to it. Letting his anger quietly seep through him, “he breathes out through the agony of it, through the pressure in his chest”, he fails to retaliate against these recurrent racist remarks, deeming it an act in futility.
I couldn’t help but recall Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life when reading this novel. Though the two protagonists face differing oppressions, they are both haunted by their traumatic pasts, concealing themselves beneath introversion and feigned happiness. It comes as no surprise that Real Life has been nominated for the Booker Prize, one of eight debut nominees this year. Taylor has produced an intimate and tender novel about overcoming pain and the debilitating effects of racism and abuse, proving that letting go of trauma is not always possible, and that those closest to us often remain oblivious.
Words by Sylvia O’Hara
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