REAL LIFE by Brandon Taylor
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.