“Real Life” by Brandon Taylor— Intimacy, Violence and Mercy

 Taylor, Brandon. “Real Life: A Novel”, Riverhead Books, 2020.

Intimacy, Violence and Mercy

Amos Lassen

Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life” is a novel of intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town. Wallace is working toward a degree in biochemistry at a Midwestern college. He is an introvert, black and queer from a small town in Alabama and even though he has moved on, he is still haunted by his childhood year. He has friends but he maintains a distance from them for his own self-preservation.

During a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with a straight, white classmate, Wallace’s defenses are torn down and formerly hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community emerge.  

Brandon Taylor writes wonderfully restrained dialogue between men. We feel the emotion of the words and it is through the dialogue that the characters become incredibly real.  Wallace has to learn how to understand and deal with his while at the same time face racism and homophobia. He harbors a fear of failure and does not really know what it is to live in the “real” world of friends and potential lovers.

Taylor goes a step further in the creation of Wallace; he examines the gay male body in detail showing how “it can sabotage and complicate a queer male heart.” Through Wallace we see how we sometimes fail both as lovers and friends and how we do not make a place for the stories of the people in our lives. We are afraid of connection out of fear of connection and only by relating stories like Wallace’s can we free ourselves.  

“Real Life” takes place over three days and reading about those three days shows us  a lifetime filled with misfortune and daily injustices towards certain minority groups by those who ae thought to be allies.  We see the lives we don’t live and the sense of privilege we get from being white..
Wallace’s group of friends is white and the racial disparity is extremely obvious. Wallace continually seems to be the scapegoat for his friend’s problems yet he is also a confidant they want to confide in but they never really seem to want to learn about him or see how he’s doing. His friends see any problem he has is filled with overreaction and drama. The friends use him as a way to feel better about themselves. He provides temporary relief and he never thinks about or questions their disloyalties even though they are obviously using him.  

Wallace begins a romantic relationship with Miller who buries his sexuality and they begin to become part of each other’s lives. Through their traumatic pasts we learn who Wallace and Miller really are, as well as about everyone else around them. Taylor shows the toxic friendships and race problems in the world, and the general lack of empathy of our generation.

What makes “Real Life” so  profound is in its asking if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds and at what cost.

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