Real Life takes place primarily over a single weekend in the life of Wallace, a grad student in the Midwest and a young, gay, Black man. He’s an introvert and someone who always feels on the outside, no matter who he is with. Over the course of these few days, Wallace questions his future and his role as a student of science, his friend group, and in particular his relationship with Miller, a friend for whom he has complicated feelings.
This is a book with very slow movement. Initially, I found myself feeling frustrated that so little was happening. Wallace meets his friends for a drink. He thinks about not joining him but then he joins them. They argue about ordering food. Wallace is a part of their group but also an outsider. Maybe because he’s constantly turning down invitations. Maybe because he’s Black. He shares a strange and electric moment with Miller.
It felt like not much was happening but I kept picking up the book, I kept wondering what would happen next, what decisions Wallace would make. Without me even realizing it, Taylor had drawn me into this incredibly life like novel.
That’s really where the skill and heart of this story is apparent. Taylor takes his time over the details – the food, the weather, the background noise – so that you feel immersed in what Wallace is experiencing. Wallace is an observer, someone who often wants to fade into the background but just as often finds himself unable to do so. The interactions between the characters felt authentic and familiar. Taylor does an excellent job of capturing that period of life in your early twenties where things are both steady and completely unstable. The uncertainty of your future is exciting for some and terrifying for others. For someone like Wallace who lacks the safety net of his more privileged peers or the general societal safety of a white man, that uncertainty can be heartbreaking.
Race is a central theme of the novel, as it is of Wallace’s life. I have to admit that there were a few scenes where other characters berated Wallace or spoke down to him and I caught myself thinking, “This can’t be realistic” or “Why doesn’t he do something?”. Each time I had to pause and remind myself that this is exactly a point the novel itself is making. Wallace has these experiences as a Black man that his friends cannot understand and sometimes don’t believe. His female friends try to compare their own disadvantage to his without understanding what it is that he faces. It’s a lived experience that is difficult for others to grasp. Reading this was a humbling reminder for me of the difficulties BIPOC face that I know nothing of and will not face because of the colour of my skin.
I was drawn into Wallace’s life and raced through this book. The one point where I felt it faltered was the end, which takes place well before any of the novel’s action. I would have preferred a glimpse at the characters’ futures and didn’t feel that this look at an earlier stage in their lives added much. That said, I will definitely be looking for more from Brandon Taylor.