reviewing two books by Brandon Taylor: Real Life and Filthy Animals

REAL LIFE by Brandon Taylor
Riverhead, 2020

I can’t believe it took me so long to read this and I’m very appreciative for Rick’s Booktube Spin and the lucky number #15 for finally making this happen for me. I thought Real Life was tremendous. It follows Wallace, a Black student in a predominantly white biochemistry master’s program at a midwestern university. 

Brandon Taylor captures two things with unerring precision: the first being the microaggressions that Wallace faces at the hands of his friends, mentors, and colleagues. There’s an infuriating scene toward the end where Wallace is in a situation where he’s been falsely accused of something, and rather than standing up for himself he quietly accepts his punishment. What’s infuriating isn’t that Wallace doesn’t speak up, but rather, that the reader knows exactly why he doesn’t, because Taylor has shown the reader that systemic dismissal, belittlement, and scorn does more than infuriate: it wears you down.

The second thing Taylor captures beautifully is academia as a suspension of reality, an almost liminal space between young adulthood and adulthood that exists somehow within the real world while following its own set of logic and social norms. Campus novels often glorify this lifestyle in a way that can be fun and deliciously indulgent, but Taylor leans into the opposite–digging into the way some people use academia as a crutch, accepting all of its quiet, mundane horrors in an effort to avoid ‘real life’.

I guess the prose in Real Life is very love-it-or-hate-it; I’ve seen a lot of people refer to it as labored and overwrought, and as someone who frequently cites overwrought prose as an offense, I don’t really see where that argument is coming from. The language is often poetic but to me ‘overwrought’ implies a certain lack of control over word choice and sentence structure; Taylor’s writing is on the other hand rather exact. This was a horrendously sad book in many ways, but also one that was pleasurable to spend time with.

And I think that sentiment will segue nicely into my review of Filthy Animals, because while I thought this was mostly brilliant, I did have a few more problems with it than I had expected to.

FILTHY ANIMALS by Brandon Taylor
Riverhead, July 2021

I read Taylor’s short story Anne of Cleves ages ago (which appears in this collection), and I quickly fell in love. In some ways it’s a melancholic, heavy story, but there’s also a playfulness to it, and I found that tone so refreshing that I was sure that Filthy Animals was going to end up as one of my favorite books of the year.

Instead, this book is unendingly bleak. Anne of Cleves offers a brief respite from the misery, but it’s otherwise a weightier collection than I had expected. Every alternating story in this collection follows the same narrative: a depressed Black man named Lionel has just met a white couple at a party, Charles and Sophie, who are in an open relationship; he hooks up with Charles and then gets drawn into their lives. I loved the choice to anchor the collection to a single narrative, and without fail these stories were my favorites and the ones where Taylor most succeeded at accessing the characters’ complex emotional landscapes. 

The other stories left less of an impression on me, and I think it’s because we just don’t spend enough time with the characters to fully earn the emotional impact that Taylor is aiming for, and that he nails so well with Wallace’s story in Real Life. I finished this a week ago and Lionel’s story is really the only one that has stuck in my mind since then.

I still really enjoyed reading this–a discussed, I love Taylor’s writing–and I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a skillful exploration of the intersection of loneliness, trauma, and intimacy–it just wasn’t entirely what I needed it to be. But that is a-okay! Will still devour whatever Taylor publishes next.

Thank you to Netgalley for the advanced copy of Filthy Animals provided in exchange for an honest review.

19 thoughts on “reviewing two books by Brandon Taylor: Real Life and Filthy Animals

  1. Real Life was such a fantastic and eye-opening look at those micro-aggressions, as you say. I found myself frustrated with Wallace for not defending himself but that also made me realize how unaware I can be of the experiences of people of colour.

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  2. For me, it’s not that the prose in Real Life is overwrought, but rather that it’s too controlled, or too controlling; that it creates a sense of airlessness that neatly reflects the claustrophobia of Wallace’s emotional life, but also occasionally makes it hard for the reader to feel as though they’re participating in something. That said, it’s a hell of an achievement and I wouldn’t have been sad had it won the Booker.

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    • That is certainly a valid criticism and one that I respect a lot more than the oft-cited ‘overwrought’ complaint! I think when a lot of people find prose disagreeable ‘overwrought’ is the knee-jerk reaction to that but I like your more thoughtful analysis and see where you’re coming from. For me that control worked very well and lent itself to an authority that I found SO impressive for a debut, and yes, it would have been a very exciting winner!

      Liked by 1 person

      • (It’s a precision-of-expression issue, like when people praise writing for being “poetic” or “lyrical” and I’m like… no, it’s purple, but that’s not the same thing… [cough] Where the Crawdads Sing [cough])

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      • Adjective precision is definitely a skill that develops the more a person reviews! Also while we’re on the subject can I just express my annoyance at people saying they ‘love purple prose’ [sic] IT’S A PEJORATIVE EXPRESSION, PEOPLE. YOU DON’T LOVE PURPLE PROSE, YOU LOVE FLOWERY PROSE (which is a whole other issue because why on earth)

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      • omg I have never heard/seen someone say they “like purple prose” but now I am AGOG at the very notion. You do not!! It’s like saying “i like rotten fruit”! No!

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    • I agree with Elle, and I’d add that while I thought the novel’s evocation of Wallace’s inner world was incredible, this seemed to come at the cost of the outer world of the novel. I found the rest of the cast quite vaguely sketched.

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  3. I’m delighted that you loved Real Life as much as I did. There was literally just one sentence that I hated (and it was in the first paragraph!), but apart from that I thought it beautifully written and so insightful and genuine. The bleakness of his short stories gives me pause … I feel like I’ve had a lot of bleak in my books recently. But I’m sure I’ll still read Filthy Animals at some point this year.

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    • The first paragraph oh no 😂 Yeah, there were one or two sentences throughout that grated on me but it’s rare that that NEVER happens in a book so I wasn’t too bothered; on the whole I found his writing so impressive.

      As a fellow Real Life lover I’m SO curious to hear your thoughts on Filthy Animals! It’s a smart, skillfully written book, it just… Generally speaking I mind bleakness a lot more in short story collections than I do in novels; in novels it feels like the author is earning the emotional reaction and in short stories it can become dull and repetitious and that’s what I sort of found to be the case here, but it’s also VERY possible that that speaks more to my mindset while I was reading than the book itself. I don’t know! I think it’s going to be very well-received and rightfully so, it just wasn’t quite the knock-out I had anticipated. After reading Anne of Cleves a while back and then loving his story Oh, Youth in Kink, I had been SO confident that Taylor’s short story collection was going to be outstanding.


  4. YES, I’m so glad you loved Real Life! It was my top read of last year, and there was some tough competition. As such I’m very much looking forward to Filthy Animals- sorry to see the single stories might be less impactful, but I do love recurring narratives across short stories and didn’t know that tactic was included in this collection so I’m even more excited now about that part of it, at least. Great reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally see now why it was your book of the year! It would have been an incredible Booker winner as well. And I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on Filthy Animals!

      Liked by 1 person

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