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In Real Life, a queer black scientist tries to survive grad school

Brandon Taylor’s debut takes on the campus novel with devastating precision.

The cover of the book “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor side by side with a photo of the author. Left: Riverhead Books. Right: Bill Adams.

The central question of Real Life, the debut novel from short story writer and Iowa MFA grad Brandon Taylor, is: What is real life?

Real Life is a campus novel. Our protagonist, Wallace, is a grad student studying biochemistry at a university in the Midwest, and he is ambivalent as to whether his life as a student could be said to constitute “real life.”

On the one hand, Wallace is devoted to his program, in which he is the only black student to enroll in the past three decades. It consumes his time, his energy, his attention: All he does is sit in the lab behind his microscope, studying nematodes. He believes he has entirely discarded his past, his desperately unhappy childhood as a queer black kid in the rural south, so that now, with “his previous life cut away like a cataract,” he has rendered it no longer real. When the only member of his friend group who is not a student says, “There’s more to life than programs and jobs,” Wallace replies, “I’m not entirely sure that’s true.”

On the other hand, Wallace is deeply aware of how white and how sheltered the university is, and he has a sense that this quality makes it unreal. He refers to his friends as “his particular group of white people.” The town locals he calls “real people,” and he is amazed at “how quickly he has forgotten to move among such people, who seem rough and ugly when they look at him.”

Troubles mount upon Wallace. His abusive father has died and Wallace has missed the funeral, and more urgently, his nematodes have been corrupted, wasting his summer’s work. He suspects sabotage from the racist and homophobic labmate who has accused him of misogyny. His supervisor, who keeps telling Wallace that his work is not up to par and that she cannot have a misogynist in her lab, is of no help. His classmates keep implying that he’s only in the program at all because of affirmative action. His eating disorder is getting worse.

“I fucking hate it here,” he says. “I fucking hate it everywhere.” But he sees no alternatives: “I don’t know where to go or what to do.”

Wallace begins to lash out at his friends, spilling confidential secrets at a dinner party. And as tension within his group rises, the idea of “real life” becomes a weapon that its members bat around at each other. Wallace’s problems at school, some of his friends tell him, are not meaningful because school is not “real life”; moreover, his anger when one of his friends tells the rest about Wallace’s dead father without telling Wallace first is “selfish.” But his betrayal of his friends’ confidences does matter because, his friend Vincent says, “this is real life, Wallace. Do you understand that? It’s real life.”

In Real Life, Wallace’s feelings are choked away behind piles of detached observations

Wallace’s skill as a scientist is his affinity “not for looking, exactly, so much as it is for waiting,” for waiting “like a savant or a trained circus seal” for his instruments to take their measurements. In this process Wallace does not actively look but observes, which is what he finds both gratifying and stultifying about his graduate work. But he uses the same method to process the rest of his life, what might be his real life, and to present it to us: not with sentiment, but with blunt physical detail.

Taylor’s descriptive sentences can be so affectless as to read as terse, even though grammatically he tends toward the long and complex. It’s not that his prose doesn’t make you feel things; it’s that Wallace, in whose head we are placed in a close third-person perspective, is trying very hard not to feel things, and most of what he does feel is depression. So instead of telling us his feelings, he shares his observations: “The scent of aloe, wet and clear. The sunscreen cool in his palm.”

Wallace allows us into his inner self only once, in a single first-person chapter toward the end of the book. There, Wallace tells us about the trauma of his childhood in detail and Taylor’s sentences grow rich and lush, fully and at last steeped in emotion. “That’s what comes to me first, the scent of the damp earth,” he writes, “the head clinging close to the ground, and the gray mist rising over a heavy storm.”

Wallace is confiding this chapter to Miller, the tallest of his white friends. Wallace has always thought of Miller as a potential kindred spirit, because they are the only two people in their cohort to have grown up poor, but they got off to a bad start: Wallace made a white trash joke at Miller, and Miller responded with a segregation joke. Now, over the course of the three-day span that makes up this novel, they’re tentatively coming together, exchanging stories and secret intimacies. And although Miller insists that he’s straight, it’s he who initiates sex with Wallace as they embark on an affair of mingled violence and tenderness.

Miller has his own problems. “I’m the wolf,” he tells Wallace, meaning the big bad wolf from the fairy tale. As Wallace repeatedly pulls away from Miller, he finds himself puzzled by Miller’s ensuing hurt: Isn’t it clear, Wallace thinks, that Miller is the one with the power here, and hence that Wallace cannot hurt Miller? Part of the project of Real Life is Wallace’s growing realization not just that his friends have hurt him, sometimes badly, but also that he is capable of hurting them, too.

And that realization is sensitively, elegantly rendered. Taylor, who like Wallace trained in science before becoming a writer, is as keen an observer as his subject is, and he writes with extraordinary precision: about the academy, and queerness, and race, and trauma, and ambivalent friendship, and desire. About all the things that, put together, make up something approaching real life. Whatever the hell real life is.