The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With ‘Real Life,’ Brandon Taylor twists the traditional campus novel

In his sincere debut novel, “Real Life,” Brandon Taylor broadens the embrace of the traditional campus novel. His melancholy hero, Wallace, a biochemistry PhD student at an unnamed Midwestern university, is black, Southern, gay, “chubby, at best.” He’s anxious but wry about how his status as an African American in a very white milieu means he continuously has to prove himself, to tolerate racism (“They say the Swedes are the blacks of Scandinavia”), and to be held to a different standard by his colleagues. Meanwhile, he’s trying to cope with his father’s death, memories of sexual violence and his friends’ relationship woes. Over the course of a weekend, the tensions in his life find a lightning rod in his friend Miller, with whom he begins a testy relationship.

What is “real life” here? Like many first novels, “Real Life” appears to hew to its author’s own experience — Taylor has written in numerous personal essays about being gay and Southern, his abusive upbringing and his experiences of sexual violence. With a boilerplate disclaimer about reading too literally, the parallels between Taylor’s life and Wallace’s experiences seem clear. In another sense, the title is a dry nod to the putative opposition between academic and “real” life, as in one character’s complaint: “You wouldn’t know the first thing about getting a real job, real health insurance, taxes.”

But it may also point to the insoluble, ineffable, capital-R “Real” of philosophy. In that sense, one might consider the surface of Taylor’s novel to be laid atop roiling, limitless forces — the Black Experience, the Queer Experience — whose undulations are what generate the novel’s unanticipated turns. What Wallace experiences as the unknowability of his friends and the inscrutability of his own actions are functions of this kind of Real-ism.

The resulting ambiguities are what give Taylor’s writing its strengths: his receptivity to menace in the mundane, subcutaneous sexual vibrations, unconscious motivation. We know through throwaway observations (“The pale interior of Miller’s thighs flashed”) the direction of Wallace’s interest; we feel through his attention to physical detail the threat of male sexuality (“the hard stubble on [Miller’s] jaw rasps against Wallace’s neck”). Yet his apparent passivity and desire to erase himself through violent sex are in counterpoint to his assertiveness in social situations, the grenades he’s willing to throw into his friends’ dinner parties. This is the subject of Taylor’s book: Wallace’s passage into new (real?) life entails a growing rejection of his old lot in favor of a new kind of agency. Like Job, who gives the novel its epigraph, Wallace reaches a point where he just won’t take it anymore.

Taylor also deals deftly, through close third-person narration, with what it’s like to be different in an overculture. Gently, slyly, he makes a point of noticing “white people,” undermining the unspoken rule of much realist fiction that race need only be mentioned when it’s other than white. Racist tropes are humorously inverted as when, gazing at Wallace’s white friends, “like a trio of pale, upright deer,” the narrator suggests, “you could be forgiven . . . for thinking them related.” Even the setting is subtly color-coded, from the white university flag to a string of white lights at a party.

Taylor’s writing is least successful when it’s most self-consciously literary. There are many cliches of the “inky darkness” variety, clothes and former lives shed “like skins.” Some of the imagery — “the innumerable dark hairs of her anger,” “a great stream of faces,” “The surface of his hunger was rough, like a cat’s tongue” — baffles rather than tickles. The lofty register that intrudes whenever a profound observation threatens — “There can only ever be a tenuous claim on the lives of others” — detracts from the vernacular panache exhibited elsewhere. There are far too many ominous birds skittering around.

There’s also an unevenness in the presentation of character. Miller, seemingly straight before the book starts, is surprisingly comfortable with not just sexual but romantic intimacy with Wallace. Elsewhere, a coy conversation between two gay men about a hookup app (“You know the one”) rings false. Some histrionics — Wallace’s nervous vomiting; a bigoted feminist (“gay guys always think that they’ve got the corner on oppression”) — may come down to personal taste.

Missteps in style and characterization may be a product of Taylor’s desire to give sufficient weight to his themes — as he told the New York Times, he aims to inscribe black and LGBTQ lives into the campus novel genre. Still, the juxtaposition of what he has called “queer, bucolic malaise” with his critique of academic politics keeps “Real Life” moving with enough bite to forestall encroaching solemnity. With tighter editing and the autobiographical impulse out of his system, what Taylor does next will be worth watching.

Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.

By Brandon Taylor

Riverhead. 336 pp. $26

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