Book Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life – Brandon Taylor (Riverhead Books, 2020)

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.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor”

  1. I find myself avoid novels about people in their 20s because it’s so hard to watch them struggle and be confused. I know I felt similarly, which may be part of the reason I don’t want a revisit.

    1. You’re right, I’ve noticed that too. I don’t avoid books about that age bracket but I do find myself losing patience with the characters who are clearly making poor decisions or who get so caught up in one thing, not realizing how much of their life still has to occur! This book felt different to me because a lot of the main character’s struggles were more to do with race and economic class and so there were big issues that were genuinely out of control. I wish he could have stood up for himself but it also felt really true to character that he didn’t or couldn’t.

    2. The issues affect him, then, will always be with him. That’s so hard to think about. I wonder why the author chose a character in his 20s. Perhaps it’s that age when people enter the adult world and see what they’ve always seen, but only more in focus.

    3. I think the author is in his 20s so he may have just stuck with what he knows. Being a grad student is also very important to the plot and character and there’s definitely that feeling of early adulthood and not knowing what your life or career will be like.

  2. Ah, great review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, it’s really been one of my favorite reads this year (though I can understand your hangups and also thought it was imperfect in places). I loved it in the same way I love Sally Rooney’s writing- for feeling very ordinary and uneventful on the surface while managing to say a great deal about people without expressly stating it. This book really opened my eyes to some facets of BIPOC experience that were new to me as well, and I also look forward to seeing where Taylor’s writing goes from here.

  3. I started following him on twitter shortly after I read one of his short stories (I think it was part of a short story calendar from a few years back) and based on what he tweets, this doesn’t surprise me at all! I love those kinds of books actually, the ones where nothing happens but you can’t help but care…

    1. He does an amazing job of making the reader care, even though this isn’t my favourite type of book to read. He’s definitely talented.

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