Brandon Taylor’s debut novel echoes James Baldwin
Before his debut novel’s recent release, readers knew Brandon Taylor mainly through his personal essays in online venues ranging from Catapult to the New Yorker. His voice might best be described as a controlled roar of rage and pain, its energy held together by the careful thinking of a mind accustomed to good behavior.
In “Who Cares What Straight People Think?,” a 2017 piece for Lit Hub, Taylor describes an incident of good-boy behavior:
“When I was in my late teens, I went to the bookstore to buy a copy of ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ which I had discovered on some online list of gay novels. It wasn’t under fiction, so I thought to check the queer section, but it wasn’t there either. I went to find a clerk. ‘We don’t keep that in the store,’ is what he said to me .... Not even an I’m sorry to soften the blow of it, just a flat denial and a tone of voice that told me I should be ashamed.”
“Giovanni’s Room,” James Baldwin’s great novel of desire, identity and alienation, echoes meaningfully throughout “Real Life,” not simply because one character grapples with bisexuality but because Taylor takes that store clerk’s flat tone of voice and gives it to his protagonist, Wallace. This transference of affect telegraphs Wallace’s shame over his past, even as he puzzles over what future he might have.
Wallace is a graduate student at an unnamed large Midwestern university (Taylor holds a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison). He studies a type of worm called nematodes — unimportant creatures, except for the data they can provide to the head of the lab, an imperious woman named Simone who mistakes Wallace’s flat affect for indifference, though it really stems from trauma. When Wallace was in middle school in Alabama, his father left the family, relocating five minutes away but never contacting them again. The novel begins just weeks after he learned of his father’s death, as he struggles to share the news with colleagues and friends.
His friends are mostly colleagues: Like innumerable grad students, they gather on evenings and weekends to drink, vape, eat and talk. There are at least two gay couples, a straight couple, a nastily effete European and a couple of dudes. Miller is white and straight and into sailing — but he’s also into Wallace. Their first sex scene, related without drama, argues for a near-future in which non-heteronormative lovemaking is unremarkable: “Miller lay on top of him and drew the blanket over their bodies, and Wallace, for the first time in a long time, let someone inside him.”
Wallace’s emotional distance seems at first like a narrative barrier but ultimately becomes the fulcrum of the plot. Almost preternaturally incapable of getting worked up about anything, from ice cream to professional setbacks, Wallace slogs from lab to apartment to brunch without any sense of direction. He craves Miller but worries that the rangy WASP is just toying with him before returning to the straight world. He loathes the red tape of academia, but “real life” is something he can’t seem to activate.
“Yes, he thought about leaving, and yes, he hated it here sometimes,” Taylor writes. “But running through that feeling like hard, resolute bone was something else: It wasn’t so much that he wanted to leave graduate school as that he wanted to leave his life. The truth of that feeling fit under his skin like a new, uncomfortable self.” Wallace is, of course, depressed. “He feels unhappy when he looks at someone beautiful or desirable because he feels the gulf between himself and the other, their body and his body.”
One steamy summer night, Wallace tells Miller about everything — the deeply sad story of his childhood molestation and discovery of his homosexuality that led him to leave Alabama and head north, looking for something that might change him. However, he realizes even as he tries to connect with Miller that “some things have no reason, that no matter how he feels, he isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.”
One reason Wallace has been drawn to nematodes is that they live and die without apparent purpose, without requiring any sort of moral framework to act. When you’ve been raised in chaos, grim, wormy determinism can be comforting. It’s easier to move through the world without close friendships — let alone intimate relationships.
In “Giovanni’s Room,” Giovanni says, “If dirty words frighten you, I really do not know how you have managed to live so long. People are full of dirty words. The only time they do not use them, most people I mean, is when they are describing something dirty.” And in “Real Life,” the dirtiest things described and enacted are not the scenes we’d call “explicit”; they are abuse, bigotry and cruelty, expressed in the polite language of a social class Wallace doesn’t want to understand.
As with Baldwin’s David and Giovanni, what separates Wallace and Miller is not just individual histories but race and upbringing. During a dinner party, Roman — the effete European — makes a statement so heartbreakingly racist that Wallace responds with an even nastier comment, a spilled secret, setting off a dynamic that will bring his relationship with Miller to a difficult place.
Wallace has long known about racism and classism, but he never expected to encounter it among supposed friends. What shocks him most is not Roman’s direct jab; it’s that it doesn’t shock anyone else at the table. His indiscretion leads to a revelation about himself: “Cruelty, Wallace thinks, is really just the conduit of pain .... They’re all infected with pain, hurting each other.” Including him. And so Wallace begins to understand what it means to live in a community, one that requires both freedom and boundaries.
Wallace believes he “isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.” Neither are we, as readers. Sometimes all we get from the universe — or a quietly revelatory novel — is a faint message, a nudge in the direction of something smaller and infinitely larger than a choice of career or partner. It’s not a path but a way of connecting, without shame or apologies for where we’ve been or what we are.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
Riverhead: 336 pages, $26