Brandon Taylor’s Booker-longlisted Real Life might just as easily have been titled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Unlike the 2017 polemic by Reni Eddo-Lodge, however, Taylor’s debut is a campus novel set at a Midwestern university — but what both writers share is an exasperation at white people’s blindness to the everyday micro-aggressions of racism.
As Taylor’s protagonist Wallace puts it, “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.”
Set over one weekend and told from Wallace’s viewpoint, Real Life is light on exterior “plot”. Instead, it traces a series of humiliations and emotional reckonings that signal Wallace’s unravelling. Why, he asks, is he in college when “I hate it here”? What would constitute the “real life” he craves?
Like Taylor, Wallace is black, gay and entered graduate school to study biosciences, his class being “the first in more than three decades to include a black person”. With the rigour of the laboratory, Taylor wields scalpel-like prose, putting human behaviours — along with Wallace’s Petri-dish worms — under the microscope.
Despite the educated liberal credentials of Wallace’s white friends, they do nothing but stand by each time he is belittled. “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.” His nemeses include a fellow gay man sneering at Wallace’s “deficiencies”, and a female colleague fabricating a misogyny complaint. So much for intersectional solidarity.
With friends like these, why does Wallace stick around? One answer — detailed in a visceral, dreamlike flashback — is that he’s running from homophobia and sexual abuse. Abuse that his parents blamed on him: “my mother . . . slapped me and called me faggot called me sissy . . . said everything except I’m sorry that happened to you.”
No wonder Wallace doesn’t return to Alabama for his father’s funeral, much to the puzzlement of his peers. His apparent lack of grief — he keeps insisting he’s “fine” — cements his outsider status in a circle of friends whom he finds stifling and toxic: “they needled each other in the amiable manner of enemies too lazy to make a true go at violence and harm.”
Indeed, violence and harm are what inhibit the blossoming, over this pivotal weekend, of intimacy with a potential lover; all the damaged Wallace can offer is rejection and rough sex.
Yet Taylor makes Wallace more complex than a mere victim; he can even be unsympathetic and antagonistic. And if Real Life owes its Booker nomination partly to the timeliness of its racial theme, the author’s broader accomplishment is his dissection of the contours of emotion. His prose is precise and masterly, as is his rendering of Wallace’s peer group dynamic.
By turns bitter and tender, Real Life is a finely wrought addition to gay literature. More than that, Wallace’s voice brings fresh nuance and microscopic scrutiny to the Black Lives Matter debate.
Real Life, by Brandon Taylor, Daunt Books, RRP£9.99, 326 pages
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