Wallace, the protagonist of Brandon Taylor’s first novel, Real Life, is black, gay, overweight and from Alabama. When he moved to an unnamed university town in the Midwest to study for a doctorate in biochemistry, he told himself that he had to be ‘a Midwesterner at heart’ because ‘being in the South and being gay were incompatible … no two parts of a person could be more incompatible.’ But now Wallace is the only black person in his cohort, surrounded by preternaturally healthy and athletic white peers. And, in a way that any black and queer person suddenly elevated to a utopian white space will recognise, his sense of multiple displacement forces him inside himself.
Wallace has escaped the homely prison of the South for false freedom elsewhere. God, the allegorical teachings of the Old Testament and the songs his grandparents sang ‘that their grandparents sang that their grandparents sang that their grandparents sang’ have given way to the cold facts and peer-reviewed processes of the lab in which he conducts his research. The concerns of real life – the need for employment and someone to live with, for protection against immediate insecurity – overrule the Christian belief that the next life matters more than this one.
The story takes place over a single weekend in late summer. Wallace leaves the biochemistry lab on a Friday evening in despair. He has discovered some mould that has contaminated his experiment and suspects a colleague of being responsible. He drags his feet to the lake to join his friends for drinks and is reticent in their company; they ask where he’s been hiding. There is a dampness in the air, despite the close heat, and a mutedness to the light. The stillness is policed by circling seagulls. Dark insects teeming within ‘a veil of delicate roots latched to the concrete’ remind Wallace of his ruined plates in the lab, and keep him from looking directly at his friend Miller, whose growing attachment to Wallace governs the weekend’s action.
We learn right away, almost offhand, that Wallace’s estranged father has recently died from cancer, and that Wallace didn’t feel able, or couldn’t be bothered, to travel back south to attend the funeral. He has tried to keep this information from his friends, who berate him for not having told them, and for not doing what they would have done in his position. They want him to question his lack of grief, but Wallace only briefly raises his head to engage with their banter. Taylor more than once assures us that these really are Wallace’s friends – ‘the people who knew him best and cared for him most in the world’ – but I’ve rarely encountered a character in a novel who suffers so much needling abuse from people who are supposed to like him.
Vincent works in finance but spends most of his time knocking around with his boyfriend, Cole, another biochemist who sometimes plays tennis with Wallace. Vincent taunts the two at every opportunity; when he speaks, a thick vein rises in the centre of his forehead, which Wallace wishes ‘with a calm cruelty … would rupture’. A female friend, Emma, kisses Wallace benignly (if weirdly) on the lips after discovering his bereavement, but her boyfriend, Thom, forgets that Wallace is gay and approaches him threateningly, before drawing him into a hug to disembarrass himself of his own insensitivity.
Glints of humour provide occasional respite from the weightiness, usually deriving from a narcissistic white mouth that doesn’t realise how vacuous it sounds: ‘Are you telling me we haven’t planned our life together? We have furniture, Vincent.’ Short of disadvantaged acquaintances to compare themselves to, Wallace’s peers compete with one another for the accolade of most oppressed. Yngve, who couldn’t be more stereotypically Nordic, claims ‘the Swedes are the blacks of Scandinavia’. Dana, a sloppy and stubborn fellow researcher, calls Wallace a misogynist, accuses him of mansplaining and insists: ‘Fuck it. Women are the new niggers, the new faggots.’
Wallace – the only man in a lab full of ambitious women and the only black person – almost never hits back. It becomes clear that, after a lifetime of being blamed for things that have nothing to do with him, he has lost the energy to fight. What a mountain this fat, black gay man has to climb each time he has to defend himself against someone like Simone, the professor – in this lab, God is a white woman – who automatically takes Dana’s side and forces him to repeat a basic set-up over and over again in order to ‘make him better’. When he complains about being treated as ‘inept’, she says: ‘Don’t be dramatic. It isn’t racism. You just need to catch up. Work harder.’ At one point, this angular, sharp-bobbed caricature summons him to her office for a chat, perched on her desk in front of a sweeping view of the lake. She asks Wallace whether he really wants to be at the university or simply not be ‘somewhere else’, but it’s clear that she isn’t interested his answer:
Wallace feels a chasm opening up beneath him. He could say what Dana said to him. He could say that she is racist, homophobic. He could say any of the things he has wanted to say since he came here, about how they treat him, about how they look at him, about what it feels like when the only people who look like him are the janitors, and they regard him with suspicion. He could say one million things, but he knows that none would matter. None of it would mean anything to her, to any of them, because she and they are not interested in how he feels except as it affects them.
Real Life bristles with everyday microaggressions, all the myriad, annihilating ways blackness is weaponised. It’s a campus novel, but anyone familiar with 19th-century slave narratives will hear the tinkle of chains in the background. Taylor has written an economical, patient and incisive examination of race relations in present-day America. Late one evening Wallace nips out to the store to buy soap and deodorant, only for a group of drunk white frat boys to take him for their drug dealer. Wallace finds a way to blame himself, reasoning that he shouldn’t have gone out so late. The violent potential of drunk white Americans is a quiet – but deafening – presence throughout the novel. Black Americans have it demonstrated to them all too often what it can mean to be present where they are not expected.
Wallace suffers from a poor diet, moderate obesity, possible bulimia, anxiety and toxic campus politics. He wonders about the forces that have condescended to include him in an exclusive research programme, and worries that he has been brought in just to diversify it. His generous stipend is paid on time each month by a rich university donor, easing him into what should be a sun-dappled, middle-class existence. He finds his research project – which has to do with the genetical selection of nematode worms – ‘boring and difficult’. It’s made harder by the ‘prospect of generating males, which always seemed to result in animals that were too fragile or uninterested in mating at all’.
Taylor himself began a PhD in biochemistry before dropping out and joining the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and nematodes make for an interesting device. Usually between 0.1 and 2.5 mm in length, they account for tens of thousands of species found in almost every global ecosystem. They are transparent, just like the humans Wallace sees right through. The lakeside, he tells us more than once, is teeming with ‘clumps of white people’, each group engaged in its own social code. Sound is important in the novel too. Wallace keeps overhearing music, rarely identified, generating a sense of something half-understo0d happening nearby. The whirring of lab machines reminds him of a fan whose soothing rhythms he enjoyed as a child, but causes him to ask himself whether that fan wasn’t the reason he didn’t hear anything when the man who slept on his parents’ couch ‘got up in the middle of the night, walked into his room, and shut the door’.
Everything is Wallace’s fault. He wears a rehearsed smile to dissipate tension, ‘always smiling, the smiling fool, the happy clam’, and – as a bottom – takes on and absorbs the physical and psychological intrusions of his lovers. Clues about his loneliness and precarious mental state are given to us in jabs: coming clean about his father’s death jolts him ‘like a sudden cry in a quiet room’. Even those who profess to care for him are only ‘good white people … who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down’. At a dinner, no one at the table backs him up when Roman, a particularly ghastly blond French friend of Vincent’s, hears that Wallace is thinking of leaving his placement and says: ‘Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for … black people, you know? … Besides, they spent so much money on your training. It seems ungrateful to leave … They brought you in knowing what your deficiencies were.’
What does Roman know about Wallace’s ‘challenging background’ anyway? Wallace is treated by almost all his peers as the black sidekick in their own personal rom-com. They seem less concerned with what’s wrong than with why he isn’t telling them about it. Of course, Wallace picks the wrong fight, calling out Vincent’s supposed infidelity to Cole and ruining the dinner. In the awkward aftermath, Wallace fills the great black hole inside with food. What goes down must come up. None of his friends seems to notice what’s going on when Miller follows him upstairs to the bathroom.
Despite the preponderance of gay men in his friendship group, Wallace becomes passively available to a classic type, Mr ‘I’m not into guys. I’m not gay.’ Miller is described as straight, tall and handsome, both skinny and loose, as if suspended between boyhood and manhood. Like Wallace, he is a prisoner of his past. Both are the first members of their families to go to university. Wallace at first seeks to provide for the glum-looking Miller by offering him food, and takes the opportunity to get closer when Miller, forgetting he has eaten handfuls of nachos and jalapeños, rubs his eyes. Even the purchase of a ($3.50) bottle of milk with which to wash Miller’s eyes elicits wariness from the bartender, but Miller makes himself ‘perfectly vulnerable’ to a technique which Wallace apparently once applied to himself. The hint of trauma here is impossible to miss. Anyone who has read Malika Booker’s poem ‘Pepper Sauce’ – in which a sadistic West Indian grandmother packs a homemade relish hot enough to ‘burn and cut raw like acid’ into her thieving granddaughter’s vagina – will reel at this first suggestion of Wallace’s nightmare childhood.
When he and Miller go to bed together for the first time, Wallace starts recalling his abuse, as a seven or eight-year-old, by the man his parents allowed to sleep on the couch. After sex with Miller, he drinks four glasses of water to purge his stomach of semen. He effectively closets himself by taking on Miller’s burden of repression: he doesn’t want anyone to find out about their encounter in case it scares Miller off. Miller begins to confide in Wallace: his mother, whom he despised, died of cancer two years ago; now he misses her. Wallace finds it difficult to revise his view of his father, who decided one day that he no longer wanted to be part of his family; who reacted to learning of his son’s abuse by telling him he hoped he had a good time; who moved just five minutes down the road, but barely saw Wallace, or his brother, or Wallace’s mother – a mother who ‘slapped me and called me faggot called me sissy called me everything except son’.
The centrepiece of the novel is Wallace’s confession – told to Miller across pillows but as if directly to us – about his past: eight pages in the first person without paragraph breaks. Suddenly the weather is stormy, the wind and rain are carving ‘a path through the woods as if some huge animal had come slinking through’. We are back in the South, among a community vulnerable to the predations of nature, Katrina and every other hurricane compounding their poverty and exhaustion. These are biblical times: ‘Storms were the only consistent church in my life.’ Wallace’s grandparents teach him and his brother about the Great Flood, their only point of reference for what is coming to destroy them. Humans are at fault because they ‘harmed God by reaching out in the dark for something that was unholy – the shape of another man, for example’. The age-old idea that homosexuality derives from child abuse must be a stubborn relic from Wallace’s upbringing; there is a suggestion, in turn, that Miller’s confused sexuality and lack of self-control are consequences of his mother’s emotional abuse. Trauma, for Wallace, is a family inheritance: his grandmother believed that his mother’s rape, from which his older brother was conceived, was her own fault – she ‘got what she had coming’. And so, blaming himself for his own abuse, shame and desire, Wallace is destined for a life of either/or:
I didn’t know much about God and the devil except what you shouldn’t do to invite one or the other … That if God wanted nothing to do with me, then I’d take the devil. I’d take him on my knees where I’d taken the men, let him pull me down in a bed of kudzu and fuck me, so long as I wasn’t empty anymore.
The stakes are higher for black people. They aren’t allowed to fail. There is a strong sense throughout the novel that Wallace’s self-hatred may drag him under. He speaks of dead leaves rotting in black water. He can’t swim, certainly not in a cold lake ‘at some slim, dark hour’. He climbs onto the roof, alone, at night. We’re used to queer characters, especially black queer characters, not surviving to tell their own stories. In fiction they are murdered, commit suicide or die of Aids. One of James Baldwin’s characters, the devastated bisexual jazz drummer Rufus, throws himself off a bridge; Baldwin thought he himself would have ended up being dragged from a river if he’d stayed in New York and not emigrated to Paris in 1948. In Russell T. Davies’s 2015 TV series Cucumber, Daniel, a white, straight divorcee, recklessly seduces Lance, a fortysomething black gay man, but when they finally become entangled Daniel freaks out and, with a hint of premeditation, kills Lance with a single swing of a golf club. If Taylor’s protagonist did die – a cautionary tale for his white peers – would any of them miss him? Taylor’s novel holds a mirror up to white people to show them at their worst. But then Brigit, a Chinese American at the lab who experiences a litany of microaggressions of her own, holds the same mirror up to Wallace – a mirror everyone needs to look into.