Brandon Taylor gives campus novels a taste of ‘Real Life’

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

Brandon Taylor’s debut novel “Real Life” opens with, “It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all.” 

It is through stark prose such as this that Taylor plucks out poetic revelation after poetic revelation, taking readers through one especially illuminating weekend in Wallace’s mundane, repetitive life as a chemistry graduate student somewhere in the wide, unnamed Midwest. There, Wallace — who has gone to great lengths not to reveal his somber past in his new surroundings — spends most of his time doing graduate work, and some of his time with his friends, most of whom are white. 

As Taylor recently told the Guardian, “Real Life” was conceived as a campus novel with someone different as its focus than has historically been the case: Now, a Black, queer man from the South takes the stage. 

“So many of my queer, Black friends were like, ‘We’re here on college campuses and yet none of these stories represent us in any sort of substantive way,’ ” Taylor said in his interview with the Guardian. While only bits of “Real Life” actually take place on campus, the world within these pages feels as small and impossibly contained as any campus novel should feel; even on the weekends, when Wallace and his friends are relaxing by the pier, they are unable to fully divorce their focus from their studies. 

Through this containment, Taylor is able to unearth sometimes startling complexities within the relationships that make up this web of group friendships. Small details become revelations, entire years of friendship characterized both compellingly and briefly. 

As a result of Taylor’s compact prose, the melodrama of real life resists becoming trite melodrama on the fictional page. Sans aggression, Taylor ruthlessly exploits real-life melodrama for the most necessary of its narrative purposes, presenting interesting and intricate conflict without it feeling overly forced, or forced at all. This feels like a real group of people, a real group of friends. It feels like real life. 

Because the novel is so often in containment, it is all the more riveting when Taylor slips into abstractions or more elongated prose, making it clear that he can pull off more than one technique. Indeed, there are multiple techniques used throughout “Real Life,” ranging from shifts in tense to shifts in point-of-view to even shifts in time, neatly tied together by the careful layering of each individual section — 10 in total, the first and last functioning as flawless bookends for the rest of the novel. 

Also of note is the scientific backdrop in “Real Life,” an impressively approachable one that makes it easy for even the most humanities-focused readers to seamlessly understand. Taylor does not needlessly flaunt his background in science, but rather uses it as a successful tool to drive the narrative forward. While some readers may be more inclined to pick up a campus novel about people who study the humanities, as many readers themselves do, it’s a fresh break from habit to read about people studying hard science. 

Furthermore, “Real Life,” as it centers around a Black protagonist, inevitably touches upon race — but it doesn’t tackle it per se and it definitely isn’t a book about race. Rather, in its ambition to prove that the realistic is something profound, “Real Life” sifts through experiences that white audiences would rather avoid confronting at all, placing them front and center. This is done not with the intention of coming to a grand moral conclusion, but rather with the intention of simply showing that these experiences are part of real life. As “Real Life” shows us, it isn’t the job of marginalized writers to do the moral heavy lifting for white audiences. 

Alex Jiménez covers literature and LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.