Contemporary Literature

Real Life

This book was first on my radar long before it’s publication date by a couple reviewers on bookstagram whose opinions I highly value (@allisonreadsdc and @parisperusing) who both commented things along the lines of it being one of the most anticipated reads of the year and, then, absolutely destined to be one of their favorites. So, of course, I added it to my TBR. Shout out to Shelves Bookstore in Charlotte, NC for helping me get my hands on it. And here I am, managing to sneak it in during the last part of the year!

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

“This too is real life, he thinks. Not merely the accumulation of tasks, things to be done and sorted, but also the bumping up against other lives, everyone in the world insignificant when taken and observed together.”

This is a tough book to give a description for. It’s basically about, and from the perspective of, Wallace, a graduate student in the Midwestern US. He’s originally from the South, quiet/introverted, queer, Black and, though he left the South to leave his past behind, the shadows of it follow him still. He’s kept a distance between himself and the group of friends he’s made during his years there, but the decision to “be involved” over one weekend’s events with them puts him front and center to a number of difficult confrontations, ugly exposures, complex realizations and relationship changes that both pull him out of his self-created shell and enforce why he had it in place to begin with.

Well hot damn. I can really only add to the various praise I’ve seen for this (debut!!) novel. It is stunning, powerful, emotional, visceral, meticulous and basically every other book review buzzword that I can think of. The entire plot, as it were, unfolds over the course of a long weekend and is really no more or less than what any typical three-day period of time might look like for a group of friends brought together by grad school. (Side note here: There were a lot of characters. Some of the side ones were there to fill a roll, less than being developed in their own right. Many were introduced at the same time and some only appeared for short moments once or twice. To be honest, I confused and conflated a few of them as I read, and I think perhaps that might be my biggest, and only, critique coming out of this book.) Anyways, like, I went to grad school and it’s so recognizable, in so many ways, that it’s almost painful. And I both never thought any of it was interesting enough to create a novel nor interesting enough that I’d want to read someone else’s novel about it…and yet, there is something so freaking compelling about Taylor’s words and I honestly just couldn’t have been more invested. I love so much that the title really reflects the inside: this is, so truly, a story of real life (and it is so full of real life). It’s no more or less than that, but it is exquisitely that. And it is straight packed with literary tension, which was not necessarily something I expected. I felt completely wrung out after finishing, not just due to the general emotional responses to Wallace’s story and inner thoughts (like, the entire chapter about his back story is a massive gut-punch and most of the last quarter or so of the book is so taught with tension it’s almost painful), but also because the inter-personal drama was written with such tightrope precision that I really felt like, at any second, a hammer could/was going to drop. It was exhausting and amazing all at the same time.    

I also have maybe never read anything that so insightfully and minutely observed what I guess is called the “human condition,” but basically people’s interactions, emotions, choices, etc. Taylor skillfully and finely describes reactions and discomforts and “off-ness” that so many feel in life, but are so hard to put words to. And yet here, they are described exactly. There is a tangible tenderness and care and precision in the words, for the smallest of moments that they communicate. Relatedly, the way he is able to put into words the unspeakable and unrecognized inner realities, versus what we show the world, is just masterful. And finally, language-wise, Taylor wholly delivers on exposing deliciously uncomfortable truths that are easier to ignore. Some of these are recognizable for everyone, like relationship secrets, the boundaries of friendship versus something more, and an exploration of plans for and expectations of life versus dealing with what life actually turns out to be. And there are some specific to grad students, that unique mix of advancement/competition and escapism/removal from “real life.” But there is an extra (or a few extra) levels to this that speak directly to Black people, to queer people, to queer Black people. It’s so clear, from the depth of feeling in Taylor’s words (as well as too-numerous-to-count voices in actual real life), the commonality/constancy of these realities and interactions and discomfort…and how unescapable they are. This book is written for those who suffer this daily. Yet, as non-Black, non-queer readers (as applicable), there is much we can take from this, such insight into what we should/could be doing better in respect for the feelings of Black people in our lives, direct and clear ways that we are told we can be better and combat this reality that we could (clearly) more easily ignore and brush aside. So, let’s listen, and act on that, because we must.  

This novel juxtaposes the hard, sharp corners of life with the softness that can often be found in small moments in between. It looks into the dark corners we all would rather stay covered or unexposed, the ways we feel disconnected despite being surrounded by others, the seeming falseness of equality between what we want from life and what it turns out to be, with such gorgeous writing that you cannot help but want to read on, despite the fear that what you read next will be more than you can/want to handle. I was completely enveloped by Wallace, his turmoil and thoughts and history and discoveries and trauma and complaints and challenges and relationships and angers and solaces and hurt…his life. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.

I think I ended up marking or highlighting the majority of the book with passages and moments that struck me strongly and deeply. It was impossible to cut the list down to a top few favorites, so here are many of them:

“…he didn’t know exactly what it was that bothered him. What could he say except that it was nothing?”

“He smiled because he was not sure how to meet someone’s sympathy for him. It always seemed to him that when people were sad for you, they were sad for themselves, as if your misfortune were just an excuse for them to feel what it was that they wanted to feel. Sympathy was a kind of ventriloquism.”

“It feels impossible in the way only possible tasks can seem, when you know that despite the scale of what you must do, it’s not really beyond the realm of possibility to do it, and so it feels impossible because you know you must.”

“He managed not forgiveness, but erasure. They seem so much the same to him.”

“The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that 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. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgement. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.”

“Wallace is tempted to catch it on his fingertips, to say, make a wish, but that doesn’t work for water. There are no wishes to be found in salt water, no magic there at all except, in some cases, the way it turns to stars when dispersed, as from the tip of a finger with a breath.”

“He swallows down what he wants to say: that a person doesn’t belong to you just because you’re in a relationship, just because you love them. That people are people and they belong only to themselves, or so they should. […] Love is a selfish thing.”

“This is why Wallace never tells anyone anything. This is why he keep the truth to himself, because other people don’t know what to do with your shit, with reality of other people’s feelings.”

“…but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to. No one does. No one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That’s the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation. He breaths out through the agony of it, through the pressure in his chest.”

“There were days in all their lives when things went wrong and they were forced to ask themselves if they wanted to go on. Decisions were made every day about what sort of life they wanted, and they always answered the same: Only this, only this. But that was the misery of trying to become something, misery that you could put up with because it was native to the act of trying. But there are other kinds of misery, the misery that comes from other people.”

“She will refuse it. She will say that he’s pitying himself, that he’s not special. That he is not alone in his feeling of inadequacy. And this is perhaps a little true. And it’s that small truth of it that makes it dangerous to him. They do not understand that for them it will get better, while for him the misery will only change shape. She will say, get over yourself, Wally, and she will smile and put her arms around his shoulders, and she will love him and try her best to understand him, and he will accept this, and he will go quiet and she will sense that something has gone wrong, but he will not tell her. And it will be as if nothing has happened at all.”

“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. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen. There is no amount of loving that will ever bring Miller closer to him in this respect. There is no amount of desire. There will always remain a small space between them, a space where people like Roman will take root and say ugly, hateful things to him. It’s the place in every white person’s heart where their racism lives and flourishes, not some vast open plain but a small crack, which is all it takes.”

“There comes a time when you have to stop being who you were, when you have to let the past stay where it is, frozen and impossible.  You have to let it go if you’re going to keep moving, if you’re going to survive, because the past doesn’t need a future. It has no need for what comes next. The past is greedy, always swallowing you up, always taking. If you don’t hold it back, if you don’t dam it up, it will spread and take and drown. The past is not a receding horizon. Rather, it advances one moment at a time, marching steadily forward until it has claimed everything and we become again who we were; we become ghosts when the past catches us. I can’t live as long as my past does. It’s one or the other.”     

“There is so much trouble in the world. There are people suffering everywhere, at every moment. Who is happy, truly happy, ever? What is a person to do with it all? Except to try to slide laterally out of one’s life into whatever grey space waits for them.”

“That he wants to be alone. That he does not want to speak to anyone. That he does not want to be around anyone. That the world has worn him down. That he would like nothing more than to slip out of his life and into the next. That he is terrified, afraid. That he wants to lie down here and never move again. What he means is that he does not know what he wants, only that it is not this, the way forward paved with words they’ve already said and things they’ve already done. What he wants is to break it all open and try again.”

“Ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close.”

 “…he becomes aware of the way his body is both a thing on the earth and a vehicle for his entire life’s history. His body is both a tangible self and his depression, his anxiety, his wellness, his illness, his disordered eating, the fear of blood pouring out of him. It is both itself and no itself, image and afterimage.”

“How to wrangle the histories of our bodies, which are inseparable from the bodies themselves and are always growing?”

“That’s all culture is, after all, the nutrients pervading the air we breathe, diffusing into and out of people, a passive process.”

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