I’m driving and listening to a section of Real Life where descriptions of social anxiety pull situational tension to a stiff tautness; then it winds the tension into a tight growing ball of layered description — one speaker tearing her cuticles raw and bleeding, the other taking in elements in the room — all slowing down the stressful conversation on the page, stalling direct speech.
Finally, when the sharp angry words that break this descriptive tension are uttered — “women are the new ni**ers and fa**ots” — they are so vile and violent that I audible gasp at their delivery and miss my turn. This was just one moment where the way this novel builds and releases tension literally took my breath away and disrupted my sense of direction.
Real Life is a campus novel, drawn from Taylor’s own experiences and written from the perspective of a queer black biochemistry graduate student, Wallace. The action of the novel centers around the mundane weekend activities Wallace participates in with his “friends,” fellow graduate students — a Friday night lake hangout, Saturday potluck dinner, Sunday brunch. His friends with one exception are white; they are all nauseatingly self-absorbed but also defensively frightened about their futures in ways that make them awful retaliatory people. Among the striking things about this novel is how it departs from conventional ways of depicting microaggressions. It doesn’t so much tell us how Wallace feels or why in the didactic way we have become accustomed to in narratives that engage racism. Rather it serves up thick and layered situational descriptions, through Wallace’s eyes and actions.
We see him being affected; we see him try cope silently; we see him injured over and over again by people whose feelings he ironically struggles to protect. They are his friends. Wallace literally eats his feelings. Through conversations the reader witnesses how painful it is for Wallace to occupy the world of academia that is arrogant about its own progressiveness, even as it does quotidian violence to underrepresented students. Did I mention these people are terrible? It is a terribleness that is all the more compounded by Wallace’s constant awareness of himself — his body, his gender, his race — , his inability to safely articulate to “his friends” how it feels to be him among them, to properly name and call out the offenses the reader observes first hand, and defend himself when they lob microaggressive jabs. There’s one instance where when he tells a friend about his father’s death; after chastising him for not sharing this news sooner, she cries so hard about it that he has to comfort her.
And then there’s the fraught sexual relationship with one of his colleagues that begins on the weekend of the novel’s events. I won’t spoil it by saying who, but this book shines in its descriptions of sexual tension between them, the conflicted tenderness and violence that characterizes their coupling, and the pleasurable raciness of well written sex scenes. The titillating descriptions of this relationship reminded me of Tracker and Mossi in Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf; though Taylor’s couple is more dysfunctional.
This is one of the books I want to win. If you saw my predictions for the shortlist in the previous post, you know I am only 2/6 and thus absolute rubbish at book prize predictions. But still. The violence that Wallace has endured and even sought out himself, throughout his life just to be, is heartbreaking. That Real Life communicates this by showing rather than telling contributes to this book’s cumulative devastations. The astonishing way it produces circumstantial accounts of microagression that are neither judgmental nor preachy lays bare just how fucked up academia can be.