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Real Life

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A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

329 pages, Hardcover

First published February 18, 2020

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About the author

Brandon Taylor

16 books1,114 followers
There is more than one author with this name

Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has received fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,410 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews153k followers
February 3, 2023
My experience of reading Real Life was like a crush, an obsession, a compulsion. For the past 24 hours, there was nothing worth the investment of my time more than reading this book. When I wasn’t reading it, it seemed almost to beckon me like a half-curled hand, both pleading and accusatory. When I finished reading it, I sat there in the state of bereftness that only comes over me at the end of a particularly good book: the sense of coming slowly back to myself and to the world outside, and finding both echoing with a harrowing sense of hollowness that was not so much the absence of something but the overwhelming presence of something turned inside out.

On the surface, Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, is the story of a gay black biochemistry student named Wallace from a small town in Alabama studying in an unnamed predominantly white Midwestern university. But that barely touches the experience of reading this novel.

The first element that makes Real Life so utterly distinctive is the writing. Taylor’s language has shores, depths, a purpose, and a shape. It’s both intensely internal and utterly expansive. The novel’s narrator, Wallace, speaks to us as if he is closing his eyes and imagining he is opening other eyes that look inward instead of out. But as fine and vivid as that deep soul-probe is, he zooms outward just as deftly, marking everything, no detail too small to escape his notice. In this way, the language mirrors, with perfect asymmetry, Wallace’s own tendency to see himself in every aspect of existence around him. The language, in and of itself, becomes a portrait.

Real Life is, in many ways, a character study. A mind, the novel shows us, is a place. It is a landscape, a wilderness, a city, a world. You can pace inside a mind in endless, restless circuits and never find its edges. Wallace’s mind is a world unto itself, pulled tight and secretive, his thoughts sinking deep, undetected, like underground water. “You are so determined to be unknowable,” his friends tell him, feeling that they could no more reach him than they could fly into the air. But no matter how good a place is at hiding things, a place cannot erase them. It can only conceal them for a while, and concealed things are not gone.

There is a familiar forlornness in Wallace’s narration that comes through with powerful clarity, a kind of claustrophobia of the soul—no walls to throw an echo back, you clap and clap, but nothing answers back. Wallace’s longing—for a person, for a world, for a very sense of self—runs like a current in the novel. This longing jostles for space alongside the remembered ghosts of Wallace’s past: his hurt, his anger, his guarded grief over his recently dead father. It is a need growing inside his chest like a fruit splitting its rind: to shed his skin, snakelike, and fling himself into the seething unknown. Wallace’s lust, and his collusion with Miller. Academia, and how it is twofold for Wallace: it both sidelines him and shepherds his life. Wallace is bottlenecked in the narrow halls of his predominantly white school, pressed together like tinned fish with people waiting for him to set foot in the wrong spot and prove their assumptions about him. But these walls, and these people, are also the invisible nautilus shell protecting him from the rest of world, and “if he should lose it, he might not survive his life.”

Real Life is about the inescapability of the past, how we become locked inside it, how it turns the present into a cage, and how the work of healing cannot truly begin until we are confronted with the cage, brought face to face with ourselves from within it. It’s also about how people can live shoulder to shoulder yet remain utterly invisible to each other. There is an edge to Wallace, a hard collision with life, that his friends and colleagues—most of whom are white—had no familiarly with. Micro-aggressions are examined, and midway through Real Life, Wallace makes a painful observation: “There will always be this moment. There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down.” Wallace’s friends might listen and nod, but the doors behind their eyes are closed, and their complacent silence proves to be as much a violation as a black eye, or a sprained wrist. “None of this is fair,” writes Taylor, “None of this is good, [Wallace] knows. But he also knows that the point is not fairness. The point is not to be treated fairly or well. The point is to get your work done. The point is results.” To survive in perpetual rupture—that is the tyranny of real life.

In these passages, and so many others like it, we see the empowering and purifying rage of Taylor’s prose. The novel offers itself up, bare and vulnerable, for its readers so they don’t have to take on the sometimes impossible task of finding language to make sense of what they are feeling. We live in a culture that makes such little effort to understand the experiences of queer people of color, let alone help us understand our own. But Real Life is a scream that ensures visibility. And it rings a bell deep inside, striking a resonant, vibrating note that makes us nod yes with recognition—and gratefulness.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 118 books157k followers
September 16, 2019
There is writing so exceptional, so intricately crafted that it demands reverence. The intimate prose of Brandon Taylor’s exquisite debut novel Real Life offers exactly that kind of writing. He writes so powerfully about so many things--the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity. He is closed unto himself but wanting to open to others even though the people around him may not be fully up to the task. And there is a sharp undercurrent of the erotic throughout. The way Taylor writes about bodies in the physical world is one of the highlights in a novel full of highlights. Truly, this is stunning work from a writer who wields his craft in absolutely unforgettable ways.
Profile Image for Kat.
263 reviews79.5k followers
November 25, 2020
I genuinely feel bad for giving this story such a middling rating, but I just had a very neutral experience.

To be honest, I mostly want to blame myself for reading it at the wrong time. Maybe if I had waited until the semester ends, and I could have dedicated all my brain power to the book in every way, it would have been more successful. But unfortunately I am in exam hell and my audiobook hold was running out fast,,,,

Truly, I think it’s a fine debut, Booker Prize shortlist worthy even. The writing is descriptive--if sometimes overly abundant, the characters felt real, and the introspective nature of the story appealed to me. Even with all that, Real Life is not something that tops the ranking of books I’ve personally read this year.

You should know though, if you are a fan of a A Little Life, you should definitely consider reading this. It shares a lot of the same themes, discussing them in a way that is arguably far less exploitative of the characters’ trauma.

Basically, I’m writing this review for no reason other than to tell you to disregard my review.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,459 reviews8,561 followers
May 12, 2020
Though it pains me to write it, this book and I just did not fit well together much at all. I appreciate some of what it portrays, the struggles of Wallace, a gay black biochemistry graduate student living in the Midwest. Brandon Taylor does an excellent job of showing the anger and then learned helplessness Wallace experiences due to overt and subtle racism throughout the book. Wallace’s sadness – from his trauma with his family, from the racism he encounters, from feeling invisible and isolated in his small town – cuts deep and feels real. Though also a major frustration of mine with this novel, I can somehow respect how much Taylor commits to rendering Wallace’s sadness and helplessness, given the enormous weight of the world he lives in.

My first extreme disappointment with Real Life stems from how I feel like a lot of the problematic and oppressive things within the novel are not addressed in a way that really calls them out. For example, when Wallace first meets Roman, a character who is extremely cruel, he thinks to himself “Roman is very handsome – so blond that Wallace thinks he cannot be naturally so. But his eyelashes are blond, his eyebrows are blond, and his beard is mostly a white-yellow…” and I just thought to myself, this is so much internalized racism, this glorification of blondness and this association between whiteness and beauty. Yet this internalized racism was never really addressed or dealt with in a way that a reader would later think, oh okay, that was internalized racism, blondness and whiteness doesn’t actually equal beauty.

Another example of this lack of addressing problematic and oppressive things includes Wallace’s relationship romantic with Miller. Throughout the book though especially toward the end, Miller treats Wallace pretty poorly, culminating in a scene that reads very much like a . Yet this violence, as well as Miller’s complicity in the racism of his fellow white friends toward Wallace, is never explicitly dealt with so much as portrayed, before Wallace resumes his relationship with Miller again and again. When I reflect on their relationship further, it reminded me of a lot of gay male romances that I feel like are written with beautiful language, yet ultimately are really unhealthy and emotionally and/or physically unsatisfying or abusive.

And this lack of growth gets to the core of my main frustration with this novel: Wallace never really gets better. I think this may reflect a fundamental subjectivity about what makes a novel “good.” Because I can see how some would say, well, sometimes you encounter tons of racism and you engage in unhealthy and borderline abusive relationships and you stick with a group of actively and passively racist white people, and that’s that. But for me, when I read books, I do value some sign of character development, some sign of healing or empowerment. I’m not saying I expected Wallace to like, renounce all the racism he encounters and become super self-loving and move cleanly and neatly toward a better career trajectory. Again, I get that sometimes life is shitty and people cope in ways that are self-condemning. Yet, one of the things I value in fiction – and I’m not necessarily saying anyone else has to value this – is the ability to render the world as different than it actually is, oftentimes through characters who are able to slowly yet surely work toward things like fighting internalized racism, letting go of unhealthy relationships, loving themselves. I frankly didn’t see much if any of that from Wallace, which was a bummer.

Overall, not the book for me, though others on this site have enjoyed it so I think it’s fair to read their reviews too. I definitely have experienced and witnessed racism from within the gay community, though I’m also a non-black queer person of color, so I recognize I may not be the book’s intended audience anyway. I did care about Wallace, though I always felt frustrated with the lack of movement in the novel, even when layers of trauma were uncovered and grievances in relationships occurred and occurred.
Profile Image for emma.
1,824 reviews48.3k followers
December 15, 2022
Nobody is perfect.

I, for example, come extraordinarily close, and even I have my flaws. I work too hard. I give too much to charity. I cannot, FOR THE LIFE OF ME, WRITE A POSITIVE REVIEW.

I can write negative reviews all day, and have fun doing it. Give me a book that is offensive, or dumb, or just plain bad, and we'll have the time of our lives roasting each other up.

But when I love a book?

Hoo boy. Bad news bears.

The highest compliment I can give a book is that it reminds me of Sally Rooney, the author of my heart, and Brandon Taylor's clear and lovely style does that in spades. This book wrapped me up in it, affecting the language of my internal monologue and the nuances of my mood and refusing to allow me to put it down until I finished - keeping itself at the forefront of my mind even if I did manage to take a break.

I read the author's short story collection earlier in the month, and while I didn't completely love it, I couldn't really shake it. Reading this seemed like a foregone conclusion, and was almost exactly like reading a novel-length version of some of my favorite stories from it.

This story, of Wallace, a gay Black science grad student surrounded by whiteness and solitude, even when in the company of others, has so much to say about violence, about race, about loneliness, about sex and love and cruelty.

Bottom line: Just read it!!!


"when you know you know"
- most people about true love / me about authors i like

update: it was true.

review to come / 4.5


reading books by Black authors for Black History Month!

book 1: caste
book 2: business not as usual
book 3: the color purple
book 4: the parking lot attendant
book 5: kindred
book 6: wrapped up in you
book 7: the boyfriend project
book 8: a song below water
book 9: filthy animals
book 10: passing
book 11: seven days in june
book 12: ayiti
book 13: notes of a native son
book 14: mediocre
book 15: sister outsider
book 16: the blue road
book 17: the fastest way to fall
book 18: real life
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,325 followers
October 3, 2020
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.

It’s strange. They say, study science and you’ll always have a job. And it seems so easy. But they don’t tell you that there’s all this other stuff attached that will make you hate your life.

This book is based on a premise I like well enough: the suffocating alienation in a place that should have been otherwise ideal. I am quite wary of academia even though all my decisions were/are shaped to ultimately lead to it. So Wallace's story should have struck some chords.

But, except for a single chapter in which Wallace talks about his childhood sexual abuse, the story mostly seemed flat and superficial. Something baleful seemed to be lurking underneath each relationship and interaction, and it left me feeling anxious. There wasn't a single relationship/friendship that wasn't toxic and a sense of inevitable doom remained throughout my reading. As Wallace tried to find spaces of stability he could rely on, he also longed for strong currents of change to sweep him away from the world he inhabited. And this confusion just disorients the reader too.

While the story was mostly vapid, the writing in the first half was also lousy.

Simone stood standing at the window watching the wind and the rain, the sallow glow of the streetlights below.

Stood standing? I don't know if this is simply American English that I'm too Indian to understand, but it made me sigh sighing.

The book also ended abruptly, leaving too many loose ends. I'm just frustrated. This was a very unsatisfactory read.
Profile Image for Paris (parisperusing).
187 reviews8 followers
October 9, 2019
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is indisputably one of the best novels of our generation, and I say this because it is true. Do you know how wonderful it feels to be represented as a gay black man — and by one of our own? Next to living, it is precisely the most euphoric feeling in the world, and so it is with immense joy that I could be one of this book’s earliest champions. Because when it comes to realizing the anxieties and nuances of our humanity, Taylor has given life to a character gay literature has been hellbent on keeping in the shadows.

A story as painfully pure as its name, Taylor’s forthcoming debut Real Life illustrates all the grueling battles of so many gay black men like Wallace, the nucleus of this story, who endure the lonesome journey for shelter and mercy under the false claim of acceptance. Wallace learns this lesson as a biochem graduate student in a Midwestern town when he’s forced to face his predominantly white friend group and the peers with whom he encounters in academia, giving rise to a whole scourge of conflicts involving: racism, queerbaiting, tokenism, white mediocrity, fragility, and entitlement. These sufferings all feel a little less intolerable when a benevolent friend makes an unsuspectingly affectionate advance on Wallace, who timidly gives into whims and wants of his own. But friendships, like the embrace of such sudden love, can only be a forcefield for so long until the burden of race, class, and expectation has its way.

My entire life, as a gay black boy from the scraps of Michigan, I dreamt of the day I’d write a story, my story—this story. Brandon has beaten me to the punch, but what a glorious sight it is to see another one of us leap across the finish line. Much like the catharsis of Elio in front of that ungodly fireplace in Call Me by Your Name or how briskly my heart dissolved as Jack was slain in Brokeback Mountain, Real Life has the sort of cinematic charm to render any audience hot with tears.

Saeed Jones, Danez Smith, and now Brandon Taylor. My Charlie’s Angels. My Destiny’s Child. My beloveds. Thank you all for keeping us alive.

If you liked my review, feel free to follow me @parisperusing on Instagram.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
February 5, 2020
Contemplative and absorbing, Real Life reflects on what it means to live authentically. Unfolding over the course of a single summer weekend in a Midwestern college town, the story follows Wallace, a reticent biochem grad student, as he nears an existential breakdown. His father has recently passed, he finds academia stultifying, and, as a queer Black man in an overwhelmingly white space, he finds himself estranged from his friends and labmates, subject to constant microaggressions and overt racist harassment. Making things even more complicated is his budding romance with a standoffish white peer he formerly resented and thought straight. In mesmerizing prose Taylor fully renders Wallace’s inner life, subtly capturing the ways he manages great stress and searches for a higher purpose in life. There’s a lot in here that’s only lightly sketched, from Wallace’s relationship with his father to the personalities of his friends, but the writing’s compelling and promising.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,776 reviews1,255 followers
December 24, 2020
Re-read after its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker Prize. Given my observation below that I felt like large parts of the hastily written novel were existing works in progress (or at least fully formed concepts) included in the narrative I was intrigued to see the author's interview in the Guardian the week before the winner announcement where he says "I wanted to go back to writing about short stories, and the fastest way to make that happen seemed to be to take up parts of my life or things I'd always been thinking about and to set them down into fiction"

Better to imagine his friends happy than to see their unhappiness up close. And unhappy they certainly would be – that has been the lesson this weekend, hasn’t it? The misery of other people, the persistence of unhappiness, is perhaps all that connects them. Only the prospect of greater unhappiness keeps them within the circumscribed world of graduate school.

I read this book due to its longlisting for the 2020 Booker Prize – and it is probably the book on the longlist that has given me the most pause for reflection at this stage.

Over 30 years ago I went to University – something that was completely new to me and to any of my working class family and friends. I stayed for a fourth year and was expected to stay for a PhD (if only to keep my brilliant brother company), but I simply could not understand academia (or the idea of being paid for research) and was very keen to get a job in what I thought of as real life. The college at which I studied (I did mathematics) was famous for its high level of science undergraduates – these NatScis (and if I am being honest the whole college including myself) being infamous for being wearing anoraks and being rather pale due to barely leaving their rooms (unless to go to the library).

I found therefore this book simultaneously intriguing (as it circles around the wider theme of whether academia is real-life and even what real life means) and on one level alien, as (other than the far more introverted and slightly over-weight narrator) the college research scientists with which he mingles all seem to be tall, healthy, confident athletic types.

And it is that split view that proceeds throughout the novel for me: the author’s writing at times is excellent (think Sally Rooney for the ability to capture the agony of young relationships and the way in which they seem so important while in them but superficial when views at a distance - but with much more flowing and captivating prose). At other times I felt whole chunks could and should have been excised (I really could have done with a lot less of the nematodes and together with the over long tennis game I was reminded of Ian McEwan at this most annoying – albeit the nematodes draw on more autobiographical experience than background research).

The basis of the book is Wallace, having left his home Southern state (and a difficult upbringing) has taken a place as a graduate student at a mid Western University. Thinking that his homosexuality was effectively incompatible with where he grew up and sensing correctly it would be more acceptable at the college, he is rather blindsided by how little, as the first black student on his programme, he fits in or perhaps more to the point he is allowed to fit in.

The book is simply brilliant at describing the covert racism that Wallace faces: a combination of an accumulation of micro-aggressions; condescension; unconscious bias, some “check your privilege” top trumps (in a memorable scene - which I think will be widely quoted - the flabbergasted Wallace finds himself accused of wallowing in his victim status as gay and black when in fact it is he who is a prejudiced misogynist), and perhaps most hurtfully a refusal, even by his closest friends, to really face what is happening to him – particularly when it might lead to conflict or simply to grant that perhaps he should be the one to say if something is racist.

And there is the other thing – the shadow pain, he calls it, because he cannot say its real name. Because to say its real name would be to cause trouble, to make waves. To draw attention to it, as though it weren’t in everything already….. The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgement. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.

At one point (which I found particularly interesting given that Brit Bennett’s Vanishing Half was perhaps one of the 2 most surprising omissions from the longlist) Wallace I think draws on Bennett’s famous “Good White People” essay (and note that Brandon Taylor is way too well culturally/zeitgeist connected not to know what he is referencing here).

There will always be this moment. There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen.

The action in the book takes place over a single weekend – the last weekend of Summer before Wallace and his friends fourth year of graduate school. Wallace, whose estranged father died a few weeks previously, is unsettled by the apparent sabotage of his experiment and speculates out loud to his friends about the possibility of leaving the program (something which the author actually did - leaving a science PhD to take up writing). Meanwhile the only real outsider in the group (who like me works in finance) raises again his view that the scientists are, in their refusal to leave the world of college, effectively taking refuge from real life.

Both of these seem to perturb the fragile equilibrium of the group and a number of tensions come to the fore – including one strained relationship Wallace has with another, self-proclaimed straight, graduate Miller which (not entirely plausibly) turns into a rather violent affair.

In the rather intense atmosphere the group of acquaintances: struggle to understand each other; get frustrated that they are not being understood; share in confidence, betray and then fail to react appropriately to secrets; get a glimpse of others unhappiness but only really through the lens of their own preoccupations.

And Wallace’s quiet observations on this process are the novel’s real strengths:

[this] is why he does not trust memory. Memory sifts. Memory lifts. Memory makes due with what it is given. Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.

He smiled because he was not sure how to meet someone’s sympathy for him. It always seemed to him that when people were sad for you, they were sad for themselves, as if your misfortune were just an excuse for them to feel what it was they wanted to feel. Sympathy was a kind of ventriloquism .... ‘Thank you,’ he said, because what else did one say when caught in the confines of someone else’s sympathy?

Cruelty, Wallace thinks, is really just the conduit of pain. It conveys pain from one place to another – from the place of highest concentration to the place of lowest concentration, in the same way heat flows. It is a delivery system, as in the way that certain viruses convey illness, disease, irreparable harm. They’re all infected with pain, hurting each other.

… pressure, the awful pressure of having to hold on to time for oneself. This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away. People take each other’s hands and they hold on as tight as they can, they hold on to each other and to themselves, and when they let go, they can because they know that the other person will not.

The book was apparently written in 5 weeks – which I find:

- remarkable for the control and insight shown in the writing;

- fascinating for the contrast with much of the rest of the shortlist (books such as “Shuggie Bain”, "Burnt Sugar" and “Shadow King” took the best part of a decade to write);

- a likely explanation for some of the more anomalous parts of the novel – I cannot help wonder if the tennis game, the copious description of the biological work (both of which are considerably too long for the brief metaphorical elements they bring to the novel), possibly the dinner party scene and particularly the flashback to Wallace’s childhood (poetically and memorably written but which implausibly is apparently told in a night time conversation) were all existing works in progress (or at least fully formed concepts) which were included in the novel.

But nevertheless on balance this is a strong novel – and for a young, debut author shows a remarkable ability to convey the very realistic life issue of latent racism.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,336 followers
February 18, 2020
I can’t figure out if it’s me or the books I’ve been reading, but I feel like I’m in a bit of a reading slump after a strong beginning in 2020. It took me forever to read Real Life. It’s getting a fair bit of attention and is on several books to watch in 2020 lists, but I found it hard to keep focused on the narrative. Wallace is an African American graduate student in biochemistry at a mid western university. He comes from a brutal impoverished family in Alabama. He is gay. His father died recently. The story focuses on a weekend in Wallace’s life amongst his classmates when his emotional life seems to unravel. He feels out of place and misunderstood. But there are no better places on the horizon. The author paints an intimate portrait of alienation. It’s well written and delves deep into contemporary interpersonal dynamics, but I didn’t feel very engaged by the story or the characters. Perhaps it was too much of a micro-emotional exploration for my current tastes. Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
Profile Image for ELLIAS (elliasreads).
477 reviews38.1k followers
March 23, 2021
This too is real life, he thinks. Not merely the accumulation of tasks, thinks to be done and sorted, but also the bumping up against other lives, everyone in the world insignificant when taken and observed together.

Slow moving and utterly captivating, this was a series of slow and cautious breaths— a slice of life of a young black man studying in a predominately white setting in a midwestern university. The way POC deal with grief and trauma will always be something more and much deeper than most non POC will realize.

This was a lonely visceral look of seclusion and adhering to the level and gaze of scrutiny, race, class, and privilege. Taylor's writing was so goddamn beautiful!!! It takes place over the course of a three day weekend but I felt like I knew some of these characters all my life after I finished reading. However, on another note, I felt like I couldn't connect to other characters in Wallace's life and in that context, it was a miss for me.

Overall, loved the themes of the exploration of grief and sexuality touched upon in this book. It wasn't a full miss yet, but still a lingering touch I can still feel and relate to.

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Profile Image for mwana .
369 reviews207 followers
June 21, 2022
I haven't read a book that has affected me so utterly since Memorial by Bryan Washington. Author, Brandon Taylor, does share that he hates when his work is called “raw” or “visceral” but when he draws from his own experiences to create a book that is part memoir and part one-of-the-greatest-books-I’ve-ever-read, what does he expect? That his work will make Black readers feel seen? Yes, yes I did.

Real Life takes place over a course of a weekend. It follows the story of Wallace, a gay Black postgrad biochem student who has moved to a Midwest college from Alabama. Wallace is struggling to navigate this predominantly white world that seems desperate to remind him that he should be grateful to be there. When he voices that he may want to leave, his friends react with performative grief at the thought of never seeing him again and downright racism,
Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for…black people, you know?
When someone sabotages his work on nematodes, erasing countless days of work, it is somehow turned into the victimization of walking cretin Dana. A younger addition to their program from Portland or Seattle. Their supervisor, Simone, immediately accepts Dana’s accusations of misogyny when the bovine had the audacity to utter that gay men were monopolizing oppression. May I please have a crumb of oppression? This bitch was so far up her ass she had the audacity to say that white women were the new n* (with a hard R) and f*.

Outside of his work, Wallace has a group of friends he met on orientation day. A collection of friends who vary on the scale of unpleasantness to downright nauseating. Most notable are Emma and Miller. Emma seems to want to own Wallace’s space. Trying desperately to be the girl best friend to the gay man. They became friends by default.
Emma and Wallace had become friends by virtue of the fact that neither of them was a white man in their program.
She shows a sense of ownership of his space and experiences going even as far as inadvertently stealing his first kiss because he was “grieving”. When she finds out that his father passed away a fortnight before the events in the book, she is saddened by the news even when Wallace is not- owing to the trauma he experienced when he was younger.

Wallace doesn’t know how to confront her display of emotion. Probably the reason he was reticent to share the news.
He smiled because he was not sure how to meet someone’s sympathy for him. It always seemed to him that when people were sad for you, they were sad for themselves, as if your misfortune were just an excuse for them to feel what it was they wanted to feel. Sympathy was a kind of ventriloquism.
And later when Emma blurts the news to the rest of their friend group they gape at him wondering why he doesn’t have an acceptable display of grief
This is why he keeps the truth to himself, because other people don’t know what to do with your shit…
Miller is a tall boy with accessible beauty that enters an entanglement with Wallace. He hadn’t even realised Miller was interested in him, owing to Wallace’s capacity for self-absorption as evidenced when he was stunned to find out that his best friend in the lab, Brigit, a Chinese-American student, also experienced racism. Miller’s relationship with Wallace is odd as Miller frequently insists he isn’t gay but shows a remarkable affinity for kissing Wallace. He also has a history with violence where he is the one who hurt someone else
I went around mad because nobody out there wanted me. Nothing I wanted wanted me back.

My favourite part of this book is Wallace’s observations. From his complaints about how the rest of his so-called friends would do nothing in the face of racist microaggressions a member of their group subjects him to.
The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth.
This has been evidenced in real time following the Oprah and Meghan Markle interview. With a whole board of white editors declaring how they have never seen any racism so surely Meghan must be lying. Taylor has had his work compared to James Baldwin and it’s observations like these that perhaps warrant the contrast.

But aside from pointing out the countless microaggressions and overt racism that Wallace is forced to endure, more distinct is his capacity to voice reactions of the human condition. To mine profundity from the prosaic. How he seeks purpose outside of Simone’s little colony.
But sometimes I’d like to live in it— in the real world, I mean. I’d like to be out there with a real job, a real life.
When his friend, Cole, is afraid to confront Vincent on possible infidelity, Wallace observes
Of course Vincent is afraid to lose Vincent… What Cole wants from life is, above all else, that matters be settled before they are even raised, that everything fall into place.
Point me to any millennial who doesn’t want this and I will tell you that’s an alien come to observe earth and hasn’t fully mastered its nuances.

Taylor’s work grasps the necessity of relationships
…Vincent… is a ward, an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.
As someone who was in a relationship with the same person for ten years I appreciated the comfort that came with being “settled”.

I felt seen and heard in ways I never thought I would see in literature. I have never seen such an assiduous expression of modern Black humanity since Girl, Woman, Other . The book does have an ambiguous ending but if you pay attention to what’s not being said you can infer how things turned out for Wallace who is semi-autobiographical for Taylor who eventually quit his PhD program to become a writer. A damn fine one at that.
Profile Image for Katie.
230 reviews115 followers
May 16, 2020
Generously, two stars. Had I rated before I had a glass of wine? One. Sober Katie dgaf about feelings, apparently, but Tipsy Katie is worried that the author or someone the author loves will stumble upon this negative review and feel sad about it, which is ridiculous but nevertheless is what my brain grapples with. (Tipsy Katie possesses a certain vanity about her paltry Goodreads account, it seems.)

Anyway: to the meat. Re-reading the book synopsis above actually made me excited to read the book they describe. It’s undeniably got a killer blurb, but unfortunately it has little to do with the actual book, which is...disappointing. Turns out a good blurb doesn’t always translate to a compelling read. Here’s a small taste of why not:

CHARACTERS: Our protagonist, Wallace, inexplicably surrounds himself with the worst group of humans in the entire world, I guess because he met them early on in his studies? They’re racist and violent and hateful, and I’m simply not buying their interactions, like to the point that I’m not sure the author has ever had friends before. I certainly don’t need to like all the characters, but cartoonish villains have no place in lit-ra-cha.

DIALOGUE: Similarly, I’m not sure the author has ever engaged in human dialogue before, because none of this is how people talk. Truly, this book had some of the most bizarre, unnatural and pointless dialogue I’ve ever read, ever. Several times I felt called to dramatically perform a passage or two of these insipid, stunted exchanges for my husband as a form of Ironic Art. (He didn’t really appreciate my artistry, da fuq. 😒)

PROSE: Overwritten and bloated. Every action had to be imbued with some metaphorical meaning, and it felt cloying and excessive. Constructive criticism: Coffee cups on a shelf don’t resemble foster children. They just don’t.

Characters, dialogue, prose — those are three biggies in the land of books, I’d say, but don’t worry: there are other issues at stake, too, including straight male sartorial mishaps, undeclared sadism, and hopelessness, the latter of which is my lasting takeaway from the book. I’m a grown-ass human and don’t need Pollyanna to come and make everything better, but shit: that was bleak.

To call out a few positives: Some of the prose was gorgeous, and some passages were so well done they restored my faith in humanity (or, at least, in the author). There were some thought-provoking comments on race (although my head hurts from having it beaten over me with such a heavy hand).

Ultimately, this is one that — no pun intended — looked better on paper than it did on...uh...paper. (Or a Kindle screen, as the case may have been, but then I lose the pun. Go to bed, Tipsy Katie!)
Profile Image for Meike.
1,512 reviews2,452 followers
May 6, 2021
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
Taylor's debut novel is strong when it focuses on the subtle dynamics of social interactions, when it conveys what it means to live in a white world as a black, homosexual man. Wallace, the protagonist, grew up in Alabama and is now enrolled in a graduate program for biochemistry in the Midwest - the only black student in his year. He falls for his white friend Miller who presents as straight and/or isn't sure whether he is gay. They start a relationship on the low, but, much like Wallace's interactions with his other friends, it is again and again troubled by reactions and behaviors Wallace has to deal with because he is black, and by his inhibitions fuelled by experiences. One main focus is on the fact that the people who do not speak up, who do not take his side but tell themselves that they carry no responsibilty are as much the problem as those who discriminate against Wallace.

The author himself is black, queer, from Alabama and studied science in the Midwest, so in a way, this novel discusses real experiences in a fictional format. While there is loud, obvious racism, it's the quieter kind that unfolds in everyday conversations that underlines what Wallace is up against, how deeply ingrained racism is in the structures he has to inhabit and in the heads of people he has to deal with - and how hard it is to react without becoming the person who ends up being blamed. Taylor makes his readers feel the desperation and claustrophobia that comes with it, and thus gives us a new rendition of the genre of the campus novel. Spanning over just a few pivotal days and interspersed with recollections of childhood trauma, the text packs a real emotional punch.

But please, dear authors: When you write a German into a novel, don't make them a chiffre and name them Klaus - it will be extremely hard to find a guy in the year and age group Taylor depicts who is actually named Klaus. It just seems like Taylor carelessly slapped a random name that appeared to be typically German on the character, which reveals a serious amount of cluelessness.

This is a book about the struggle for dignity and to find a place for oneself, and how these strifes are made even harder through the effects of trauma and systemic injustice. A fascinating read that requires close attention.

You can learn more about the book in our latest podcast episode (in German, as the German translation of the novel is available now!).
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,552 followers
March 10, 2021
Came to this book to re-read after reading FILTHY ANIMALS, a short story collection that I adored. Taylor's Wallace seems an indelible creation to me, a fully realized character, and the fine campus novel that emerges around him, full of dramatic characters and complex situations and plenty of biology, is secondary to the pure pleasure of the lead, and of the voice. It's a memorable debut.
Profile Image for Pedro.
191 reviews402 followers
November 1, 2021
It’s funny how sometimes what feels just like an ordinary and meaningless situation becomes engraved in my memory in a way that I know, on the spot, that I’m never going to forget it.
I’m not sure if this happens to everyone or if it’s just something related to another one of my weird personality traits. What I do know for sure though, is that every time I get to one of those situations, I always feel like I’m floating outside my body watching the whole thing going on. And then, afterwards, I just know that my mind is going to play that same scene over and over again at the most random times.

Let me just quickly tell you about this really bad morning at work a few months ago when, surely because it was obvious how much fun I was having just from the look on my face, a colleague asked me if I was okay, if everything was alright. Not even bothering to lie, I actually answered that I had had enough already and just wanted to go home. And she was like, awww, I’m sorry you’re missing your country so much. And I, at this point, already in out-of-body experience mode, kind of laughed and said that I wasn’t that desperate and actually only meant "home" as going back to bed.

Funny, isn’t it?
My country?! God, I don’t even own a house.

Real Life is also packed with this type of "sweet" little stories. It’s a sneaky and claustrophobic novel that caught me completely off guard and constantly punched me with its uncomfortable truths.

What happens within its pages is never pretty. It’s all about situations that (most) people don’t want to talk about, be confronted with and even less so, to admit that they could possibly relate to!

For me, this was a wonderful character study, and even though some of the side characters didn’t quite come to life, Wallace, the main character, was completely fleshed out and I believe that was actually what the author intended for a story happening over such a short timeframe.

Wallace is not what the majority of people would call a likeable character but I, probably because I’m so broken myself, really felt for him.

In my opinion, this is not a perfect novel. Gosh, is there such a thing as a perfect novel anyway?!

I thought the writing was lovely, even though a bit too flowery at times, but overall, and considering this was a debut, I think it all worked very well and most of the descriptions (weather and landscapes, etc) were a wonderful way to take us deeper into the characters’ minds.

Here’s an example:
Wallace looks out over the grey shifting water and at the undulating darkness below its surface. The peninsula is in the distance, and he can see just around its bend, the water already gleaming. The row of dark hedges that comprise its body flutter as if they were a murmuration of birds, a mass action cascading .

Could you sense the melancholy and the longing?

The last fifty pages really got my heart racing, and I’d like to take my hat off to Mr. Taylor for having the courage to go “knees deep” in topics as disgusting as racism and homophobia can be and throw them right onto the readers’ faces.

Unfortunately though, I think that the people who really need to read this novel the most will never even get close to it. They’re always too busy making other people’s lives a nightmare.
Real life, you know…
Profile Image for Doug.
1,981 reviews703 followers
July 28, 2020
Update: And now a rather surprising, but not unworthy, Booker longlist nominee.

4.5, rounded up.

I am intrigued that the author states emphatically that he 'didn't write this book for the white gaze' (https://www.theguardian.com/books/202...), since it was totally accessible to me in a way that other books by POC writers sometimes are NOT (e.g., Queenie; Lot) - but I appreciate his point. Mainly, I was engrossed in this seemingly autobiographical tale of a queer, black grad student in a Midwestern University having to negotiate his position as such, amongst a circle of friends who are rather clueless regarding their own often unconscious racism. To learn that this debut novel was written in a mere five weeks is astounding, since it betrays very little of the pitfalls for such. In particular, Taylor excels in effortlessly rendering dialogue scenes with naturalistic aplomb.

I had a few minor qualms, which prevented me from seeing this as a full five star read - it took me awhile to get into, and I ALMOST DNF'd it in the first 25 pages, since I wasn't immediately grabbed. Some topics (looking at you copious details about nematodes and tennis games) I found a big yawn, and wish had been judiciously edited out. Some things I found difficult to swallow - that the protagonist had reached the age of approx. 25 without ever having been kissed; that a previously straight identified guy would have so little problem having an intense sexual relationship with an out gay man. And although many of the characters stood out with strong identifying characteristics, others kind of blurred into an undifferentiated mass.

Although the wistful ending was well nigh perfect, I could have stood a bit more closure (many of the issues raised are left open ended) - and would have relished arch villainess Dana being hit by a bus, or coming down with a horrible fatal illness - but then, would that actually happen in ... 'real life'?
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,005 reviews36k followers
December 4, 2020
Audiobook/sync ebook.
.....with thanks to ‘many’ of the Bay Area Libraries.

This was one of those books that I (shamelessly admit), started and stopped many times. - I hope the Bay Area libraries weren’t checking my nuttiness too much....(I checked both the ebook and audiobook out - each - a few times from several different libraries....
I was determined to eventually commit to the whole enchilada.

It’s not that I didn’t like the audiobook voice narrator...(Kevin R. Free was a wonderful voice to listen to)... and it wasn’t as though I didn’t appreciate this 2020 Booker Prize Finalist....( I did) > The unfairness of real life, the unpredictability of it, the uncertainty, and the traumas we live through....I did! I did!....
But I kept getting distracted....NOT THE AUTHOR or BOOKS FAULT...

Wallace, a black gay grad student...with a great brain for chemistry...( haha: science and human chemistry), he wished for life to be a little different, better, for life to be more hopeful. He wished for more justice...fairness....kindness...
Ha.... who can’t relate?? This is our very shocking and unsetting year of 2020.....
So...I kept getting distracted....
Once I really got rolling ( And it helped that I had Paul join me with this book: Paul is a worm guy). We have 3 LARGE LAYERED TRAYS of worms in the gardening shed out back. My left over apple peels - old veggies - and other compost become yummies for our worms....
Paul gives this book 5 stars....he loved the nitty-gritty science about the worms.
Its about a 3.5 rating for me....
I liked the ‘guys’ human chemistry....
and the thought provoking dialogue between BLACK & WHITE...
Wallace says:
“When you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth”.

So....overall ...( between Paul and I), we rate this 4 stars.

This is an exceptionally well written book. Hard to believe it’s a debut.
....The psychological depth goes deep.
....Characters are flawed ....at times pretentious....but mostly it was the pain Wallace lived with that felt so real.
Like a herpes: (sometimes active other times doormat).... his pain was always there. The suffering could surface when least expected.
Wallace was a man whose father had died —who had abused and abandoned him as a child.
....As an adult— his work in the science lab was tainted with.
....Discrimination rejection, and injustice, was as real for Wallace as his skin was black.
....A dinner gathering boomeranged....(flawless connotations)
....The satire-humor gives relief breaks to the painful undercurrents.
....Themes include- abuse, sexual abuse, racial injustice, and homophobia.

Lots of insight and wisdom that we need right now with the hard times we are all living with in 2020.....
.....and will continue into 2021.
Profile Image for Claire Reads Books.
137 reviews1,384 followers
September 23, 2020
2.5 ⭐️ a lot of this book felt like a labored and overwrought creative writing exercise – throughout, I found myself bogged down in the excessive (& often meaningless) description, clunky dialogue, and over-abundance of half-baked MFA symbols and similes...unfortunately, not for me :/
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,048 followers
March 21, 2020
This is one of the best books I've read in a while, spread out over a few days because I was worried I'd finish it too quickly. The author uses some of his own experiences as a gay science grad student who is also a person of color. The character Wallace questions the white apology, how much we have to bring in from our past, and how sure we have to be of our life direction. I feel like I'm not doing it justice, still wrapping my head around it, but definitely felt the intensity of this read.

And it's not just the story, it's the writing. Here are a few examples:

"Sympathy was a kind of ventriloquism."

The entire two pages about the past, something the narrator is telling someone else but you only really know that in the next section. And something I get the impression he wants to believe but has not experienced in reality.
"...When you go to another place you don't have to carry the past with you... The past doesn't need a future. It has no use for what comes next. The past is greedy, always swallowing you up, always taking... I can't live as long as my past does. It's one or the other."

Sorry and white apologies and guilt without it changing you, etc...
"Just because you say you're sorry, or you say that someone doesn't deserve something, does not erase the facts of what has or has not happened, or who has or has not acted. Wallace is tired."

And then a pretty amazing moment where he's on the other side of sorry, which I won't quote but is riveting.

Read it, read it, read it.

TW for sexual assault.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,404 reviews2,362 followers
December 31, 2020

Brandon Taylor's debut novel Real Life left me with such a bookish hangover. After finishing the book, I felt like my world was rocked, I had to sit with that feeling for a moment.

In Real Life we meet Wallace, originally from Alabama, he moved to the Midwest to pursue a degree in biochem. As a black gay man from the South, Wallace took the first opportunity given to put some distance between him and his barely there family. An introvert at heart Wallace tries to come out of his comfort zone by trying to be a part of a circle of friends, majority of which are white, all are trying to live some semblance of a "real life".

Brandon Taylor knows how to write. For a debut novel he came out swinging. He brought the character of Wallace to life in the most tender, unique, vulnerable and honest way. I believed the story Brandon Taylor was telling even though it was fiction. He writes with authority on loneliness, racism, trying to find yourself, performing for people and trying to fit in. It was so real. I found myself getting so riled up at various scenes where Wallace was treated badly or gaslighted. I felt so much for the character Wallace because I have around some Wallaces in my life.

A well written book that deserves to be read with awe. I cannot stop singing praises to this book.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,338 reviews696 followers
March 29, 2020
“Real Life” by Brandon Taylor is beautifully written; his prose is phenomenal. The story though, for me, wasn’t my thing. Perhaps it’s because I read it during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I should not be reading bleak novels!

This is a depressing story of a black gay man getting his degree in biochemistry in a small midwestern university. He’s working in a lab, which is cut-throat and isolating. He’s found a group of friends, yet he doesn’t allow them to get close. He’s endured trauma as a child, and his dysfunctional coping mechanisms don’t serve him well as a young adult.

This is a raw and emotional story that is written so perfectly that I wanted to take to my bed. The main character, Wallace, is depressed to the point of being robotic. His melancholy follows him in his schoolwork at the labs and with social situations.

Author Brandon Taylor drew on his own personal experiences, developing Wallace as a character in Taylor’s stead.

Again, this is an excellently written story. It deserves 5 stars in literary value. I didn’t find the story to be a good one for me.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,866 followers
October 20, 2020
There is much to admire about this novel, not the least of which is the fact that Brandon Taylor fearlessly embraces the idea that there is no easy solution to the messiness of the effects of grief and trauma on a person. His ability to lean into and plumb the psyche of his gifted, wounded, fiercely intelligent, deeply introverted protagonist, is very impressive. There are times when he’s a bit less successful at exploring the messiness of interpersonal relationships, particularly in a couple of group encounters that begin to strain credulity with their depictions of the borderline savage verbal behavior on display. Also less successful is a flip from third-person to first-person narration for one crucial chapter; I was confused by the choice to couch the first-person language in such extremely poetic and florid sentences, when a simple, direct, authentic monologue would have been much more effective.

Nonetheless, I was always captivated as i was reading this novel, and I was often wonderfully surprised by the mercurial nature of Wallace, the main character, as he struggles to find his way in what is very convincingly drawn as the complex, fraught environment in which he finds himself. Brandon Taylor is definitely a writer I will follow to see what he does next.
Profile Image for Darryl Suite.
495 reviews381 followers
April 26, 2020
FINAL REVIEW: Real Life follows Wallace, a young Black and queer Biochemistry student enrolled in a predominantly white school and living in a predominantly white town. Throughout the novel, I was burning with a quiet rage due to the circumstances Wallace finds himself placed in, such as being on the receiving end of casual racism. A fascinating dynamic is that several of the casual racist remarks Wallace endures comes from his circle of (white) friends. Taylor does an excellent job of showcasing why Wallace, a passive character, feels helpless during these situations, he’s a character without a voice. I could relate. As a person who grew up in a predominantly white suburb and attended a mostly white school, this made for some really uncomfortable reading. I loved that Taylor was not afraid of making Wallace unlikable and problematic at times. It would have been far too tempting to write him as an all-suffering angelic martyr. He’s frustratingly selfish at times.

Another prevalent theme is the complex notion of sexuality. And what exactly is sexuality anyway? Here are all the roles sexuality takes on within this text: There is the liberation, confusion, and shame of sexuality; the nervousness about sexuality; the curiosities of sexualities other than ones own; the sexual pain, pleasure, neediness, danger, and selfishness, too. The plotlines depicting these themes are graphic, volatile, intricate, but most importantly, worthy of deep analysis. From the moment Wallace’s weekend love affair begins, we know that it is “all wrong.” It’s possessive and problematic and will inevitably head into calatimous territory. Reading about it may mess up your moral compass, have you questioning what exactly is it that you’re witnessing. Who is the villain in this story? Are there only villains? Are there no villains at all?

(Oh and read this book for the painfully awkward dinner party scene. Oof). In awe.

August 27, 2021
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4.25 stars

“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry...but once I started Real Life I simply couldn't stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence...still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness...

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor's riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace's story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni's labs, to his or his friends' apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor's novel also subverts some of this genre's characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning 'real life vs. student life' becomes a leitmotif in the characters' conversations. Taylor's novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which 'real life' problems make their way into a student's realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these 'friends'. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his 'friends' cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace's mind is far more disturbing than what his friends' rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn't possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his 'friends', Wallace's mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace's discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace's own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences...is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters' conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor's narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace's own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor's prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace's lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace's story. We read of his confusing desires, of his 'friends' hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction...Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace's friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends' horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace's friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I'm trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can't wait to read more by Taylor.

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
September 15, 2020
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020

Another of the debut novels on the Booker list, and for the most part the right kind of surprise. This is an intense and personal book that follows a weekend in the life of Wallace, a gay black biochemistry student from Alabama in a mainly white university in the mid West.

Wallace is not the easiest protagonist to like - though he faces many problems and disadvantages, he keeps himself on the edge of the group of friends at the centre of the book, and often says things which inflame issues rather than healing them. His father died some weeks before the weekend of the story, and his feelings about that were decidedly ambiguous because of the abuse his father inflicted on him as a child - Wallace chooses not to go home to attend the funeral or talk about it with his university friends.

On the first night of the weekend, a previously straight member of the friendship group Miller starts a sexual relationship with Wallace, and their complicated feelings for and treatment of each other are described in some detail.

Wallace also faces problems with his lab work which seems to have been sabotaged by a fellow student, and questions his future in the university and his limited options if he left. His options are limited by the student in question accusing him of misogyny.

The writing is at times a little florid, and there is perhaps a little too much detail at times, but overall I enjoyed the book, and can understand why it made the longlist.
Profile Image for elisa.
200 reviews1,278 followers
June 22, 2022
i have a lot of complex feelings about this book, especially the ending (which swayed my rating closer to a three than a four, for reasons having to do with miller's character and wallace's perpetual inertia), but i will say this: brandon taylor does gay misery + trauma better than hanya yanagihara ever will. and get this! he isn't a straight woman! he's not obsessed with torturing gay men for no reason that readers can discern (and in fact, he has lived stories like this one himself) and he also isn't anti-therapy! so if you've been a fan of her gratuitous trauma porn in the past, i implore you to pick up this book instead and give money to actual gay men who are offering critical examinations of darker themes like depression, child sexual abuse, and intersections of oppression. it's a little wild to me that yanagihara has been allowed to uncritically obsess over gay men's misery (to great success!) and no one wants to stop and ask why that is. worse: she refuses to answer! i need all the a little life girlies to put on their thinking caps for this one 🤣🫣

but i digress. back on the topic of real life: i was moved immensely. i cried quite a bit. i felt frustration so acute i had to periodically put down the book. taylor paints a complicated portrait of antiblackness and the loneliness it inspires on both personal and institutional levels. there's a lot of passivity built into wallace for this reason; i understand the purpose of this character choice, but i think i ultimately wanted more for him by the end of the book. i wanted movement. action. some level of change, even if forced. so i was let down by the stillness of taylor's conclusion (of wallace pinpointing his own people pleasing tendencies and doing nothing about them), though i understand why he might have made the creative choice to end the novel that way.

his prose is definitely mfa-inflected. it's glossy and overwrought, at times prone to over-monologuing about seemingly meaningless details in setting or daydreaming. but that's to be expected with a novel that takes place over the span of a few days, and i did enjoy his writing enough to read half of it in one sitting. i will say that his dialogue is much weaker than his description; it often lacks flow, originality, and depth, and the content can sometimes feel confusing or head-scratching. i hope that improves in his short story collection.

overall, though, i think this was an incredibly powerful debut and one that taylor did well. his character writing is ultimately what sold me. 3.5/5. that ending tho💔💔💔💔💔💔💔💔💔
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,844 followers
November 2, 2020
I found this novel to be so masterfully written, a real five-star read, and yet at the same time I found the experience of reading it so bleak and airless that I can't quite love it. It is a perfect book in so many ways. It's a very subtle and beautifully written book. It takes the facts of systemic racism and shows how these facts manifests themselves in the everyday life of a hyper-intelligent, sensitive, gay black man.

Wallace is trying to survive in a graduate program as the only black student, surrounded by equally hyper-intelligent white people, who all congratulate themselves for being enlightened about race, when they are, in fact, blindly racist and awful. But there is no hint of easy polemical in the novel...because now and then a character comes along who is not so bad to Wallace, after all...only Wallace can't tell the difference; because he's too damaged from his need to protect himself, in a world so full of prejudice and hostile presumption.

So while I can't quite love it, I still think it's a wonderful, important book. We have great, great novels about overt racism. This is something different. This is something subtle and true.
9 reviews
January 22, 2020
I got an early copy of this from my bookseller, who couldn't make up her mind about it. I get that this book has a lot of in-crowd support right now, but it just feels tedious and self-congratulatory, mostly interested in its own cleverness. Wallace can't make up his mind about anything, and it feels like the author is wringing him dry for the sake of the story, rather than that pain coming from the character. It's also a book where very little happens--there's a lot of looking back--and that doesn't help things. The prose is, you know, like, "burnished" or something, very proud of itself.
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