Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

“I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” Job 7:3. 

Brandon Taylor’s stunning debut opens with an epigraph from the explicitly theodical book of Job, the oldest historical text to seriously question: why do good men suffer? In Real Life, that question is transposed onto a university campus in Alabama. We follow Wallace, a gay, black biochemistry postgraduate student, who reacts to suffering by continually minimising himself, as if attempting to shrink himself into the microscopic company of the nematodes he works with in his lab, which day in and day out he observes, cultivates, and then, beheads. 

Taylor approaches Real Life with similar precision. From four years of Wallace’s postgraduate study, he extracts a single weekend, isolates it, and slides it under the microscope. Tragedy has struck: In the lab (his nematode breeding experiments have been deliberately contaminated); in the family (his father has passed, Wallace did not attend the funeral, he would prefer that you don’t ask); and in his social life (his friends do ask, persistently and infuriatingly, under the guise of good intentions). Wallace has very nearly had enough: he’s pushed to the point where dropping out is a serious possibility. Here we are at the crossroads of whether Wallace should stay or go. And, having set the stage, Taylor takes a step back, all elements in place, and watches as his experiment unfurls.

Critics have hailed Taylor’s debut as a devastating rewrite of the campus novel, a genre marked by the enclosed physical space of a university campus, and that often deals with the intellectual pretensions of academia. Taylor’s choice to incubate Wallace’s coming-of-age story within the genre goes one step further. Real Life is set in America (a country characterised by a genuine belief in its own democracy, economy, liberty, and God-given mission to transform the world), in a University (which by nature champions meritocracy, supposedly evaluating each student based on intellectual effort regardless of background), and in a biochemistry lab (peopled by students of science, carrying all associative ideals of reason and objectivity). His arrival on campus should herald a moment of triumph—both as the first black student in over three decades to be accepted to his postgraduate class, and as a point of escape from a site of childhood trauma. And yet, like his nematodes, Wallace doesn’t stand a fair chance. Within the lab and his circle of friends, Wallace is dealt the entire range of aggression – from micro to explosive—and in turn, leaks it.

The thing about despair is that it is myopic. Wallace, as we are introduced to him, prides himself on his ability to quietly hunker down and wait out any storm, something which is relentlessly interrogated in Real Life. But as he suffers endless battering, Wallace becomes unable to see the individual afflictions of those around him, and in turn, deals hurt out to his friends. In the hands of a lesser writer, the novel could very quickly devolve into an endless discussion of the competing hierarchies of trauma—but Taylor’s commitment to portraying real life and all its messiness spares none of his characters the full consequences of existing in such a space. 

About halfway into the novel there is a splendid dinner party episode, where the fever pitch of aggression peaks, and Wallace is provoked to lash out at his friends, spilling secrets designed to lacerate. The fallout of this scene includes Wallace being confronted with allegations of selfishness by his four friends (a neat parallel to the way Job is accused of hypocrisy by his four friends), but also slowly realising that he is capable of hurting others. Later, in a particularly moving scene with his Chinese-American labmate Brigit, he dismisses her relative propensity to suffer, and then realises what he’s done. When they make up, Wallace dreams aloud about an ideal situation where they can live together, apart from the rest of the world which is, for them, characterised by racism, aggression, and pain. Taylor allows them to briefly linger, but then shakes his head and gently brings them back to reality. “The thing about dreams is,” Brigit says, as she leaves, “you got to wake up, Wally.”

The book of Job attempts to find a beginning and ending to the suffering; in other words, it tries to rationalise it. However in Real Life, as in real life, suffering is inevitable. Yet Taylor’s epigraph, quoted in media res, is reminder and consolation that this suffering is at once individual and universal. It is Wallace’s, but not his uniquely; it is also the continuation of a tradition of suffering that has come to characterize the human condition. Thus Taylor forces his characters to be active participants in the mess of reality. By rejecting their impulse to isolate themselves, he grants them culpability, dignity, and ultimately, humanity. We must exist in the world, we must take our place as fully formed players. Taylor plants his feet firmly with this novel—in time, place, and genre. Why do good men suffer? Perhaps, in the absence of divine exegesis, we can only glimpse humanity through the curtain of suffering, perhaps wrangling with it is how we make sense of our humanity. This, according to Taylor, is where real life happens. This is what it means to live.

About the author

Jemimah Wei is a writer based in Singapore and New York. She is the recipient of a National Arts Council Scholarship (Singapore) and a Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship at Columbia University, where she is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction.

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