The campus novel is a sub-genre with an inbuilt tendency towards navel-gazing since literary fiction is by and large written by graduates for graduates. Setting this one in Iowa City, home of the Writers’ Workshop, risks an inflammation of this tendency. Sensibly, Brandon Taylor pulls away from roman à clef territory and a hall-of-mirrors effect by ignoring practitioners of fiction and introducing a poet, Seamus, in the first section of The Late Americans.
Seamus is a disruptive element in his seminar group, prone to giggles as he mentally critiques the work being examined (‘This variety of poem often surfaced in seminar: personal history transmuted into a system of vague gestures towards greater works’), though he’s also willing to make offensive comments out loud, about menstrual imagery, for instance. The men are in the minority in the group (two out of nine), but Seamus is anything but respectful of a consensus that enshrines trauma as a literary necessity. He isn’t exactly thrown out of the session but chooses to leave early. At a loose end, he shows up unscheduled at his workplace, the kitchen of a local hospice, and helps with the prep for lunch. The need to work while studying marks him out as the recipient of a junior award (not ‘the good fellowship’), but the patience of the activity makes it resemble the creative process as he knows it, with a sense of certainty that can elude him as a poet. He sweeps aside an ineptly chopped pile of ingredients, the botched draft of a bisque, and starts again: ‘He loved the first bite of the knife through the material wet of the ingredients. He could read, in that very first moment, the final taste of the dish. It was just an onion, but in bisecting it, he felt a little closer to himself.’
It’s plain from Seamus’s thoughts that he could write trauma-based poetry if he wanted to. A poem about his father’s angry physical decline after an injury would be praised for its vulnerability, its aesthetic procedures rendered moot. But isn’t there agony enough for everyone? No call to waste a poem on it. Then he overhears himself being discussed without indulgence by his co-workers (‘Chile, he swear he know everything’) in a way that reminds him that he has his own privileges of class and race. He finds this so painful that by reflex he raises his hand to check for a nosebleed: ‘The skin was so hot with shame it shocked him.’
He consoles himself by having a smoke in a discreet part of the grounds and is tapped for a cigarette by a man visiting the hospice. Despite an edge of antagonism their interaction turns sexual. Seamus doesn’t mind a certain amount of sordidness: ‘Sometimes he thought that the only things he needed in life were poetry and to be occasionally held down and fucked like dogmeat.’ The man isn’t tender during sex and becomes abruptly violent afterwards, reacting to an admittedly crass comment (‘Dying people make you hard or what?’) by slapping Seamus and then holding a cigarette against the side of his face. Seamus might at least have considered the possibility that this stranger was visiting a dying relative, even if the man’s reference to his father ‘wasting away like some faggot with Aids’ is bizarre considering what they have just been doing. The striking thing, though, is the chime between the earlier hot rush of shame and the actual assault on his face, an insistent piece of literary patterning.
The point of view (not a first person but a closely following presence) moves away from Seamus at the end of the first chapter. This is an underexplored moment in the life of a novel, one of potential vulnerability. The first point of view was part of the donnée, the original set of givens, but here it becomes possible to ask: why that and now this? Human beings only have access to one set of experiences, a state of affairs that a single-viewpoint novel can seem to simulate, but multiple viewpoints (however much films and novels domesticate the anomaly) stand outside the way we take in the world. Construction is an aspect of all fiction, but only at points like this does it break the surface and enter the reader’s awareness. Taylor’s previous book, Real Life, shortlisted for the Booker in 2020, was also a campus novel, though its characters were graduates studying bioscience. It was a more tightly controlled performance, with a single point of view and a time scheme covering only one late summer weekend. On the level of dynamics, changing the point of view can produce a loss of momentum. Taylor guards against this towards the end of the first chapter by having Seamus go to a bar to recover from his ordeals, where he chats flirtatiously with two men who have their own reasons for drinking. One of them is going through a bad patch with his lover, to the point of being reluctant to go home to him, and this little scene warms readers up for the next section.
The half-dozen or so principal characters in The Late Americans have plenty of overlap – it’s hard to tell them apart without a little mental effort. They’re all gay men, young and attractive, though there seems to be no pecking order of hotness, no accredited beauty or hangdog also-ran. Most of them are coming to the end of graduate study at Iowa. Three of them have Slavic names: Fyodor, Ivan, Goran. Two are well-off: Goran, Timo. Three of them are black: Fyodor, Timo, Goran. Two of them have been piano prodigies: Goran, Timo. Two of them have had dance training: Noah, Ivan, though if Goran can do a pirouette or a fouetté at a party so gracefully that it hurts to look at him he must have put in some class time too. There are two couples, not very securely established: Ivan and Goran, who live together; Fyodor and Timo, who don’t.
A certain amount of possessiveness exists both inside and outside these couples, but monogamy is not expected. When in the 1980s Iris Murdoch was asked whether the absence from her fiction of characters who took sex lightly indicated disapproval, or a sense that her plots wouldn’t work without a sense of commitment and consequence, she said it was both – a quaint attitude even then. Sexual choice has lost its power, at least in this slice of the world, to inflect a narrative. It’s no longer that big a deal. Here sexual acts need not deepen or problematise an acquaintanceship: Stafford, for instance, is a painter Seamus only knows because he ‘stole paper from the poet office in the liberal arts building. Stafford taught a gen ed art-appreciation class, and sometimes they talked about art. Sometimes they talked about music. Sometimes they just fucked.’ There’s a memory of shock value in that last sentence, but it’s faint. Though sexual preference retains its importance as a source of identity, the acts by which it is expressed have become hollowed out.
From this selection box of youthful beauty readers may well choose Fyodor, the closest to an odd man out because he has no cultural pretensions and earns his living by manual labour. ‘Fyodor worked in beef, as a leaner’ – perhaps the most blue-collar sentence ever written. He cuts away the fat and connective tissue from carcasses on a production line. It’s not just his lover Timo but the whole graduate echelon that patronises him, though in an almost excessively dazzling passage it turns out that Fyodor has the ability to enter into the mental processes of these snobs who can’t be bothered to enter into his:
‘I didn’t know you liked Russian literature,’ Timo said. There was something mean and mocking in his voice. It was how certain of their mutual friends spoke to Fyodor when they thought he had done something out of character. When he offered to julienne the vegetables for stews, or when he … lifted their quivering pets into his arms and spoke in soothing, quiet tones … or when his eyes grew teary at the conclusion of movies, as the music became soft and optimistic, like fine rain or mist on hopeful faces. In those moments he often saw himself through their eyes, and understood that they thought of him as something else entirely – as hard and stupid.
The other characters may be more articulate but can’t match insight of this reticulated order. When Timo takes over the point of view, he studies the book’s other couple, Ivan and Goran, as if for clues. Chafing against his dependence on Goran’s money, Ivan has started producing arty but explicit video clips, both carnal and somehow abstract, which make Timo look at him differently. Timo hears in Goran’s voice ‘the strident righteousness of a certain path’, and can even recognise that he uses the same tone with Fyodor, but projects onto his friend a defence of his own narcissism: ‘Some people got to be selfish, didn’t they? They were special and their selfishness was a part of that.’ Earlier, in a section from Ivan’s point of view, we have seen how this manifests itself in practice, when Goran throws a glass against the wall simply because Ivan was picking something out by ear on his keyboard. Now, when Ivan and Goran seem to be getting on too well, showing physical affection for each other at the restaurant where they’ve all ended up, Timo knocks the water carafe off the table to break the mood.
In both cases the breaking of glass is the first indication of dissatisfaction. With these rather overpitched incidents Taylor is either exploring the pathological oversensitivity shared by two of his characters or revealing a need to amp up the quotient of drama beyond a generalised uneasiness. These graduate students feel a certain amount of pity or contempt for undergraduates as a tribe (‘They all looked the same. Like small, desperate creatures, fearful and alone in the world’) but their own position – shallowly rooted in the city, with deadlines looming for career breakthrough and/or personal fulfilment – is no more secure. This is a provisional landscape, and a group portrait of people passing through.
Seamus is the only character whose point of view recurs, but it’s hard to make the case for his being the central figure of the novel since he’s absent from the last hundred pages. In his second section he agonises over a poem that was sparked by the image of a Gorgon’s head appropriated (and placed in the context of menstrual imagery) by one of the women in his class. Taylor reproduces some of Seamus’s poem but not enough to allow the reader a definite judgment. But it’s easy to think that Seamus has substituted for the authenticity cult he despises an older one every bit as romantic, according to which the effort the poem cost the author is the badge of its worth. After submitting the poem he realises that it’s full of his own pain: ‘It was too much about Bert’, his assailant in the hospice grounds, ‘and the woods and his parents and his grandparents and too much about how much it hurt not to be wanted in the way you wanted to be wanted.’ Not as much of an improvement on abortion trauma as he had hoped.
Seamus doesn’t think much of the original Gorgon poem’s title – ‘Andromeda and Perseus’ – which inverts the title of a Titian painting and thus makes female suffering central. In general he deprecates the device of incorporating one artform into another: ‘Ekphrasis is so dead, man. Bleak and needy shit.’ Even so, the book conducts a certain amount of ekphrastic business, setting up for instance a running contrast between the demands that poetry and dance make on their practitioners. Seamus feels that if there’s anything in his life but poetry he has somehow forfeited the right to write it: ‘Like, if he had a family and responsibilities, he wasn’t always sure that he would pick poetry over them.’ Perhaps he lacks the resolve to be the poet he wants to be. In dance no such romanticism is possible. It’s one thing for Seamus to feel that in writing a particular poem he has come up ‘to the very edge of his technical ability’, something quite different for Ivan to find that his defective tendons have placed an embargo on professional performance. (He switches to business studies.) Graduates of the writing programme can hope to follow their Iowa predecessors to – soul-crushing phrase – ‘midlist glory’, while even a dancer as accomplished as Noah fears that graduation may be an end rather than a beginning: ‘He might never dance again, he knew, and even if he did, he might never dance again the way he had wanted to years and years ago, as a kid, when it wasn’t a job or a prospect but just something he did.’ The most exquisite observation about the dance world in the book has to do with the way dancers internalise their discipline. A cohort of them drinking together in a bar and crowded into a booth instinctively choreograph themselves: ‘They fit together, arm under arm, leg over leg … they anticipate one another, moving out of the way just enough that someone can drink … Their mouths and eyes swivel, take in snatches of conversation, parts of one another’s faces, voices.’
Ekphrasis is unlikely to be a novel’s primary business, and the discussions of poetry and dance aren’t dynamically connected, but the oddity of The Late Americans is that each constituent part seems to be secondary. The characters aren’t jostling for centrality but hanging back from it, so that there’s no distinction between major and minor figures. Everyone’s status is intermediate. A sidekick like Oliver, Seamus’s gender ally in the seminar, finds himself promoted to middling eminence in the narrative and even to the status of sex partner. Noah himself starts off as a sounding-board for Ivan, since the two of them do construction work to earn extra money. This is an assortment of supporting players, well short of an ensemble cast. It’s as if some sort of narrative hub has been removed, leaving the spokes to move things on as best they can.
Anovel about the struggles of a group of young gay men that appeared in the 1970s (the earliest date such a literary project was publishable) would have leaned heavily on family conflict, coming-out then being regarded as a rite of passage and even an unavoidable psychodrama. In The Late Americans the characters’ relationships with their backgrounds aren’t always harmonious, but sexuality isn’t an issue. Even a family like Ivan’s, barely assimilated immigrants whose cultural horizons might be expected to be narrow, don’t associate his drive to be a dancer with anything unwelcome. They fund and support him as best they can. It’s wonderful that family turmoil no longer claims space in gay lives, though perhaps a little too good to be true. No false steps on the way to maturity, no floundering – it’s almost as if the characters were born adult and pre-loaded with Grindr.
But not quite. Of the two couples, one (Ivan and Goran) is in a state of sexual stalemate, while the other (Fyodor and Timo) is energised only intermittently by sheer incompatibility. The sometimes vexed question of sexual roles is easily resolved the only time it arises: ‘I can top, if you’ll let me bottom later.’ People have wrangled more fiercely about who washes the dishes and who dries. Noah’s sexuality, meanwhile, is oddly blank: ‘He was not attracted to Bert. He wasn’t attracted to anyone, really. But Bert was as good as anyone else would have been, and sometimes he knocked eighty bucks off the rent, and that was as good a reason as he could have wanted.’ Yes, Bert, the same Bert who burned Seamus’s face. He’s Noah’s landlord, and the guy for whom he and Ivan do construction work. Noah’s exploitative willingness to be exploited also leads him to have sex with his dance teacher Olafur.
In both cases, Noah comes up against a sudden impulse of violence. Bert throws scalding coffee over his face, and Olafur pushes him off the bed so that he strikes his head on the corner of a dresser. This is violence like the glass-breaking incidents, bursting into the novel without subtext, suggesting an attempt to spice up undramatic material with a squirt of hot sauce. There is also the occasional glug of syrup at the end of a section:
So they went on smiling, and then they were laughing at their table in the corner, while it rained and grew cold and the café grew loud and then warm and then empty, and the whole world, the whole procession of its events marched on without a single notice or care that there in their tiny, obscure particle of the galaxy, two people’s hearts were breaking over and over again.
Any creative writing seminar, let alone Iowa, would want that sentence to stop after ‘empty’ while its eloquent flatness is still channelling Hemingway by way of Carver, before it goes so spectacularly soggy.
Of the characters given a viewpoint it is Seamus who is most conflicted sexually. Oliver has been assumed to be straight, but when his enthusiasm for Seamus’s new poem precipitates sex between them the act is emotionally and physically dirty, in a way that makes the video clips of Ivan, plying himself with rubber implements for a paying audience, seem positively chaste: ‘He’d been inside of Oliver, the dank, dark corridor of his body. They had smeared and slathered each other in spit and semen and sweat, and other, darker fluids.’ Seamus’s motivation, though, is neither desire nor gratitude but the need to ‘nullify’ Oliver. Nullify is a strong word – even dogmeat isn’t nullified.
These young men have differences of approach and temperament, but they share a characteristic not spelled out. One of Ivan’s irritations with Goran is that he is always reacting to what is being done to what he calls ‘my people’ – to black people. This strikes Ivan as a pose, since as the adopted son of a rich white couple, Goran is sheltered from racism in its more blatant forms. Those victims of violence, as Ivan sees it, ‘belonged to a dark fraternity of modern martyrs’ while Goran belonged to an obscenely wealthy family from the Chicago suburbs. This argument is also silently accepted by the characters in the area of sexual preference. No presumptuous solidarity here for the less fortunate. If The Late Americans was your only source of information you would think that gay rights had long been part of the US constitution. How else to explain the sense of blasé entitlement with which the characters greet the amenities offered them, the queer cinema seasons, the gay graduate mixer (but isn’t there an app for that?), the PreP medication that not only eliminates the fear of HIV but the inconvenience of using condoms? University towns can have a cosmopolitan atmosphere, but Taylor’s characters think nothing of displaying affection in a country store. This isn’t a political or principled act, more an inability to imagine that their privileges may depend on context. The only prejudice in the book seems to be against poets, who aren’t invited to the dancers’ parties. There’s even something like self-hatred among the poets, some of whom prefer to frequent the fiction writers’ bar so as to avoid their own kind.
The period of the novel is the Obama presidency – an early mention of Trump and the word ‘pussy’ suggests an allusion to the Access Hollywood tape, but there’s no reference to it being an election year. In other words, these entanglements take place between Massachusetts becoming the first state to legalise gay marriage in 2004 and the Supreme Court’s extension of marriage equality across America in 2015. This vast upheaval in the law leaves no trace in the book except a passing use of the phrase ‘his husband’. How casual! Foucault argued against the attempt to extend marriage to include same-sex couples, feeling it was too well defended an institution. Still, though he didn’t expect marriage equality to happen, he would have expected the beneficiaries to notice if it did.
It might be possible, with effort, to read The Late Americans as a satire on a gay generation dependent on electronic media, unaware of anything that has led up to the present cultural moment – the whole novel a languid riff on Noah’s flip remark, when provided with a little unwelcome context, ‘I thought modern queers were ahistorical.’ Certainly there’s potential comedy in the book’s two couples struggling to build a relationship beyond the hook-up stage, after being brought together by apps that pair a pauper with a plutocrat (Ivan and Goran) and a dogmatic vegetarian with a processor of animal carcasses (Timo and Fyodor). The tone doesn’t match up, however. This is recessive irony, the equivalent of a recessive gene, carried by the material but not expressed in it.
As the book’s point of view goes round the circle of young gay men there’s one character who becomes perhaps more interesting than is intended. During his encounter with Seamus in the hospice grounds Bert’s behaviour was charged with loathing, even (as Seamus perceived and enjoyed) ‘malice’. He said not just ‘Don’t touch me’ but ‘You don’t get to touch me,’ insisting on an existential difference between the parties apparently engaged in a single act. (The touch in question was intended only to maintain balance.) After the cigarette assault Seamus managed a small symbolic revenge – realising at the hospice dinner table that Bert’s sexuality was a secret from his dying father, he sent him a fluttery hand signal designed to be intercepted.
Yet after the sexual act Bert had pulled him close and kissed him, a kiss ‘without love in it’ – hardly surprising given the dark tone of the encounter – but a kiss nevertheless. It’s a jarring detail. But then seen from Noah’s point of view, Bert’s hostility is less like psychotic acting-out than rough-hewn subcultural critique, even if it’s voiced by a redneck who blames Obama for the recession he in fact inherited. ‘You think it’s all acceptance and pride parades and easy psychology,’ he tells Noah, though in fairness the younger characters in the book would be as likely to sell Girl Scout cookies as to attend a gay parade. Bert insists on invoking memories of pain. ‘You can’t know how it was before. It was awful for us. Our people died.’ Noah responds to this suggestion of a community with a history (‘our people’ rather than ‘my friends’) with a flip remark. His attitude is one of contempt, seeing Bert as ‘some lonely little fucker out in the middle of nowhere who had missed Aids only because it had swept over his tiny little crack in the world, except in the case of all those lonely dying men returning home from greater, vaster cities’. The qualification in the second half of the sentence does something to complicate its dismissive intention.
In his 2019 book Out of the Shadows Walt Odets argues that the rate at which a generation of gay men lost sympathy with the previous one was accelerated by different experiences of Aids. Those who were already active when the epidemic started (my generation) had to reincorporate into their idea of sexuality the fear and guilt they had devoted so much effort to shedding. For men born in the 1970s and 1980s, the link between sex and death was established early. Those born in the 1990s, though, could take combination therapy for granted and regard sex as a relatively low-risk enterprise. It would be hard to find a purer example of this generational estrangement than the interaction between Bert and Noah.
All the same it’s hard to see how Bert can be both a self-hating closet case, as he is early in the book, and its only gay liberationist, the keeper of community memory. Even his physique seems to have changed, ‘bullish’ to Seamus, ‘flabby’ to Noah, who has admittedly seen him naked. Giving him a share in the point of view, rather than modelling him from a distance, would resolve these contradictions or enrich them, and pay other dividends by widening the generational reach of the book and offering one character who was born in Iowa and still lives there, rather than treating the place as an educational staging-post. Seamus may not have the good fellowship, and Noah may have to accept setting his sights on Portland rather than San Francisco for his first job as a dancer, but Bert’s life is a genuine dead end. He makes a living renting apartments to students, but that’s no reason to like them, even if there are sexual fringe benefits once in a while. There’s a sort of logic to his outbursts of violence towards Noah. The flip remark after which he throws hot coffee over him is ‘Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of fags.’ It can’t be the word ‘fag’ that upsets him, since he used ‘faggot’ to Seamus in the earlier scene, with a full charge of hatefulness. He apologises, and asks Noah what the line (‘the sit-on-the-ground thing’) meant:
‘It’s kind of about self-pity,’ Noah said …
‘Is that who I am to you?’
‘I’m nobody, who are you?’
Next thing he knows, Bert is smothering him with a pillow. Agreed, it’s folly to be diagnosing underclass PTSD in a fictional character, but Bert seems to be set off by remarks that combine cheap irony (even the trucker caps he wears are described as ‘unironic’) with a flaunting of the education he lacks, in the form of tags from Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson.
Noah seems to be a slow learner. On an earlier occasion, when Bert said, ‘People died so we wouldn’t have to hear that word anymore,’ he had replied snippily: ‘People died in Iowa?’ (The word, oddly, is ‘queer’, which far from being taboo has become compulsory.) On that occasion Bert was able to restrain himself from violence, perhaps because there was no highbrow reference involved. It’s – yes – ironic that the only character in the book who might be said to be ‘triggered’ is the one who has been least exposed to the idea.
There’s no real possibility that The Late Americans is inviting harsh judgment of its half-dozen or so aspiring gay male characters, but it’s a backhanded compliment to the underlying strength of Taylor’s talent that the book can be read so fiercely against the grain without being nullified in the process. Construction is what lets it down, with the circling point of view, problematic in itself, jettisoned towards the end. Bea, from whose perspective the seventh section is narrated, has no connection with the other characters apart from being Noah’s neighbour. Watching a gathering of Noah’s she envies the happiness she thinks she sees, and has an impulse to strike the window. ‘She could feel the impact, that prickly smack, though it hadn’t yet happened. She might break the glass, send it plummeting down into the garden.’ She doesn’t.
There’s an unexpected emphasis late in the book on damage done to women, by abuse within the family and sexual assault outside it, by institutional pressure to protect those who injure them, by the trauma of abortion. These themes are presented rather abruptly, so that only a few pages elapse between one character being introduced and him forcing his attentions on a fellow student. It’s as if Taylor wanted to offset the gleeful portrayal of the female cohort in Seamus’s class, doggedly pursuing victimhood, by offering a more empathetic perspective on women’s lives. But it would be more satisfying formally for the book to revisit those misguided poets, Beth, Helen, Mika and the rest, rather than chronicling the travails of Bea and Noah’s classmate Fatima, who is promoted without much warning to person of interest.
It isn’t easy to guess how the book is supposed to work as a dynamic organism, unless this is a clue: ‘Overhead, a loud crack of thunder that shakes the glass and the table. It reverberates through her and through them, and for that moment everything is united, vibrating like one great plucked string.’ But what fictional element could play the part of that thunderclap? No electrical discharge in the form of plot development, certainly. The novel tails away with the end of the academic year, and the impending dispersal of the graduate cast. One hallowed method of ending a book, at least since To the Lighthouse, has been for a character to have a moment of aesthetic understanding, a revelation of pattern. This is what Taylor pushes for in the last pages: ‘What was happiness if not this moment, if not then, right then, the group of them, together for maybe the last time, coming together for this moment, for this very instant, what were they if not happy?’
In its lack of specificity, its one-size-fits-all character, this is more like the music at the end of a film, ‘soft and optimistic, like fine rain or mist on hopeful faces’, that brings tears to Fyodor’s eyes, than an achieved literary effect. Seamus has no part in the harvest of happiness. The narrative has thrown in its lot with the dancers, for whom, true, pattern is everything. Still, Woolf’s Lily Briscoe could say ‘I have had my vision’ with conviction because she had put in the work on her painting. Daw, the dance student from whose point of view the epiphany of happiness is rendered, only appears two-thirds of the way through The Late Americans. You can’t make much of a master of ceremonies if you arrive late to the party, bringing a speech that would fit any occasion.
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