Real Life (Brandon Taylor)

Real Life is the first novel by Brandon Taylor.
Finished on: 13.3.2022

Content Note: child sexual abuse, sexualized violence, (critical treatment of) racism

Plot:
Wallace works on his doctorate in Chemistry at a small Midwestern university. His life is spent mostly in the lab, with occasional meet-ups with his friends, most of whom are also pre-docs in Chemistry. Wallace, being the only Black person in the lab, coming from a poor background and being one of the few queer people at university, doesn’t feel like he belongs, but so far he has muddled through. But over the course of one weekend, the balance he has found in his life shifts considerably, though.

I expected Real Life to not be a happy book, but I didn’t quite anticipate just how heavy it would be (content notes in the book would have been nice). That being said, it is a sign of how well-structured and well-written it is to make you feel this weight. And it is certainly worth subjecting yourself to it.

The book cover showing black boxes on a red background, vaguely reminiscent of lab results. On top of one of the boxes is a sparrow.

I work at university myself, though not as a researcher. I might, at some point, try to get a PhD myself, but despite doing pretty well at university, participating in a research project before finishing my MA and still teaching there, I quickly turned away from academia as a career option for me – it is too all-consuming, and I’m just not the person to devote herself completely to one singular thing. Reading Real Life was a confirmation of my choice in that regard. As far as I know, Taylor himself studied chemistry and worked at university, so he definitely knows what he is talking about, and it shows. His portrayal of university life (as opposite of real life) is spot-on and sheds a light on some of the darker corners of it.

Generally, Taylor wonderfully captures Wallace’ loneliness, his alienation, his constant feeling like and being the outsider who just doesn’t really fit in. His desperation, the sense of being trapped – Taylor dissects all of these feelings with a fine scalpel (yes, I resisted making a microscope pun), and gives us a tour through all the different ways of how somebody can (be made to) feel like they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The writing is evocative, and brings the characters to life in only a few words. The only one we learn really much about is Wallace, further underscoring how he is not like the others. When the book dives into his backstory, it gets pretty disturbing, though it’s not the only time that it does.

The book has a romantic touch, but it isn’t really romantic, I don’t think. The relationship between Wallace and Miller is too fraught, too uneven, too violent to be romantic. And on the one hand, it fits with the overall bleak tone of the novel, but on the other hand, I would have wished that it would give Wallace (and us) a bit of a reprieve, a little goodness in his life.

Though the real kicker is the very last chapter that jumps back in time and gives us a look at the hope that Wallace had for university. A hope and lightness that is utterly destroyed by the time we meet him in the novel. It’s a depressing and at the same time beautiful ending – just like the entire book.

Summarizing: good, but heavy indeed.

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