Maybe it’s indicative of the year we’ve had, but my favourite fiction of 2020 was almost universally harrowing, sometimes outright devastating. The endings of several still haunt me weeks and months later. I’ll never forget the final pages of Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater,” or the coda to Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty,” or the epilogue to Sophie Laguna’s “Infinite Splendours;” never mind the total gut-wrenching experience of Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty.” This was the year I demanded books that shook me to my core, that shredded me emotionally, or at the very least induced the smallest cut.Continue reading
“Is this all his life is meant to be, the accumulation of other people’s pain?”
It’s hard to describe Brandon Taylor’s Booker-longlisted “Real Life” in a way that conveys its brilliance without making it sound archetypal. It’s one of those novels that defies its plot description through its execution, its greatness stemming from its specificity of character. Ostensibly it’s the coming-of-age story of a college student named Wallace. That Wallace is black, and gay, is significant; so too that events transpire over one weekend. I think what makes “Real Life” truly special is that although Wallace’s struggles are universal, Taylor’s novel doesn’t set out to achieve a universal statement. This is Wallace’s truth; the honest portrayal of his character is what makes his story more than a mere “campus novel.”
Hailing from Alabama, where he grew up poor and abused, Wallace is a graduate student in the Midwest, who keenly monitors his genetic experiments on nematodes (multicellular insects) with little time in his life for anything else, let alone a potential boyfriend — Miller — who’s not actually certain he’s gay, and has some repressed anger issues. Wallace is burdened by his own traumatic past, and continues to struggle with the “whiteness” of his college world, and the bubbling undercurrent of racism that permeates his every moment; it’s the subtle infractions that seem to cause the most damage. Taylor colours Wallace’s world with friends who feel fully-realised and three-dimensional, despite our brief dalliances with them. Their dynamics vary depending on who is present and who is missing from their gatherings.
“Real Life” is a story about the complexity of trauma, forgiveness and prejudice, and a searing snapshot of white middle-class. I was mesmerised.
Publisher: Daunt Books
Published: 4 August 2020