In Taylor’s stunning debut, Real Life, quiet diligence toward one’s goals mutates into a spiral that leaves the mind and body bruised as if survivors of a psychic war zone ... a novel that probes — painstakingly, with the same microscopic precision its protagonist uses in the lab — the ways that an anxious queer black brain is mutated by the legacies of growing up in a society...where the body that houses it is not welcome. It is a curious novel to describe, for much of the plot involves excavating the profound from the mundane ... Taylor proves himself to be a keen observer of the psychology of not just trauma, but its repercussions: how private suffering can ricochet from one person to injure those caught in his path ... The novel’s at times stunted and awkward dialogue...can clash with its often tight, beatific prose. Yet much like the tropes of queer literary lust that populate the final half of the novel...even this halting dialogue never feels wholly out of step with Wallace’s psyche, which itself functions in discordant, sometimes off-putting, thrillingly contradictory ways. Add to all this Taylor’s deeply rooted understandings of the rarefied worlds of both provincial grad school life and biochemistry in particular, which should inspire envy in every writer striving for specificity. There is a delicacy in the details of working in a lab full of microbes and pipettes that dances across the pages like the feet of a Cunningham dancer: pure, precise poetry ... Taylor subjugates us with the deft hand of a dom to the airless vertigo that rests at the heart of the spiral.
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is both a break from this tired obsession with 'realness' [of Blackness] and a meditation on what it might mean in a fuller sense, outside of a reductive understanding. It is less a novel steeped in the subconscious anti-Blackness of highbrow art and realist literature and more one in conversation with questions of personhood and social death ... It is perhaps one of the finest Afropessimist pieces of art, if we are allowing pieces of art to be made in this tradition. I may be applying this label too broadly, but if we are to talk about a work that explicitly outlines the themes of Afropessimism, then I would place Real Life as one of the foremost, alongside more established examples such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Taylor unearths these layered struggles with tenderness and complexity, from the first gorgeous sentence of his book to its very last ... Reading Real Life — which is equal parts captivating, erotic, smart and vivid — reminded me of experiences from my own history ... Relationships between queer men and men who are straight — or at least who present as such — can be difficult to depict, when our culture is so rigid in its portrayal of sexuality and masculinity, but the ambiguity Taylor creates on the page between Wallace and Miller is devastatingly effective ... Taylor’s book isn’t about overcoming trauma or the perils of academia or even just the experience of inhabiting a black body in a white space, even as Real Life does cover these subjects. Taylor is also tackling loneliness, desire and — more than anything — finding purpose ... What makes it most special, though, is that Real Life is told from the perspective of Wallace, who, like so many other gay black men I know, understands how such a quest is further complicated by racism, poverty and homophobia ... stunning.
... [a] bravura first novel ... In many respects, Taylor’s debut is a novel of extreme contrasts. Wallace experiences pleasure and pain, kindness and brutality, longing and release ... Taylor lays bare his protagonist’s conflictions and afflictions without rendering him a figure of pity. We come to champion Wallace as he examines his heart and his unhealed wounds, and his attempts to harden himself against destructive forces. Hostility appears on all fronts and in a variety of absorbing set-piece scenes ... The compressed time frame and closely packed events ensure that the proceedings are always emotionally charged. Taylor shines a vital light on race, class and sexuality, and in doing so leaves his reader in no doubt as to his unique voice and talent.
The interplay between the removed perspective of a bird in flight and the corporeal, vital connection of the flock creates a kind of dance where the prose is like bird tracks in snow. The reader both soars above it all and gets hit in the face with the violence of a hollow bone snap ... so deliciously complex. The characters are full of moral flaws and good intentions. No one is entirely likeable, and few are entirely hate-able. Real Life troubles the line, which one might argue is arbitrary to begin with ... Real Life is one of those novels that perfectly captures a moment in time while also being timeless. It’s an arresting portrayal of an internal map and the one-ways and glass panes that restrict its movement. Taylor has given the literary world a masterful debut.
Taylor revels in descriptions of breeding nematodes and running protein preps. The language of biochemistry in the novel is deft, a fluency no doubt acquired during Taylor’s own graduate studies in that field ... Real Life recalls Weike Wang’s debut novel Chemistry—both are anxious narratives illuminated by precise, lush meditations on the beauty of science ... This is a dark novel. The landscape is blighted: lakes are filled with pond scum and bacteria and dead animals serve as ill omens. The main character suffers from anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia, and the abuse and cruelties that human beings visit on each other are never far from the page. Despite that, there is also kindness. When Wallace’s friends show their fondness for him, or when Miller is affectionate, the reader experiences a kind of dramatic irony: We see their intimacy in a way that the narrator himself is unable to.
... a campus novel imagined from the vantage of a character who is usually shunted to the sidelines ... One clear achievement of Real Life is that it instantiates the indignities of this setting without invoking the hackneyed language that has come to dominate contemporary discussions of campus culture ... It would be easy for Taylor’s novel to settle on an indictment of this culture, whose exhausting absurdity—Why report a racist colleague’s comments to a supervisor who seems no better?—is a worthy subject of satire. But Real Life doubles as a sophisticated character study of someone squaring self-preservation with a duty to tolerate people who threaten it. The book teems with passages of transfixing description ... The flip side of Taylor’s exquisite rendition of Wallace’s remove is that it can blunt the rendition of his surroundings. Loneliness occasions moments of melodrama that bloat the prose.
Bounded in time by a single weekend, held in tension by Taylor’s spare, restrained syntax, and given no more than a handful of central characters who continue to find new ways to hurt each other, Real Life by rights should read like a closed-in, misanthropic comedy in five acts. It never shades into that closed-in misanthropy, managing instead to maintain an astounding naturalistic sensibility: we are less comfortably watching these characters in a glassed-in trap of the author’s own making than we are drawn into their inner lives, even when those lives are racist, selfish, or violent. The novel shares DNA with Mrs. Dalloway in this way: Taylor’s parsimony with time, facility with simile, and precise measure of the human heart are a match for Woolf’s ... Real Life’s extensive, careful use of simile holds the past and the future in tremulous tension.
... crisply narrated ... Although it’s mainly the injustice of Wallace’s story that commands our attention, his perspective on white middle-class mores also fuels plenty of low-key comedy ... Psychologically compelling, incisively satirical, told in a muted style that nevertheless accesses a full emotional range, this is a brilliant book, worthy of a wide audience, whether or not it makes the Booker shortlist – but I’m already crossing my fingers that it will.
There is a way to use a novel to preach to a choir, to those who denounce the wrongdoing of others while ignoring their own culpability. Brandon Taylor’s Real Life refuses this kind of solace. It is a political novel, but it is quiet, careful, and fully attuned to the ways people—nice, normal people—are utter and irredeemable assholes ... If most campus novels insulate their characters from political life, Taylor’s gives unnerving insights into the challenges of an anguished job market and bitter competition for funds. It also reveals the university to be a place that denies racism’s reach while outwardly lamenting its effects on American life ... The details here have the savor of the real.
... a devastating wallop of a debut novel. Impressive in its economy ... heavy, uncomfortable topics make for a heavy, uncomfortable reading experience, one that shares more than a few similarities with Hanya Yanagihara’s juggernaut, A Little Life, both in terms of subject matter and tone. But while A Little Life could be unnecessarily grim and upsetting, the discomfort of Real Life has a point: to unsettle, to provoke and, hopefully, to cause white readers to reassess their own privilege and biases ... Real Life will undoubtedly unsettle some readers, but it will do the opposite for others, offering relief and validation at finally having their own experiences and truths recognized and reflected in a novel, and artfully so. Taylor’s language is breathtaking in its precision and poetry, and he has a real talent for writing beautifully about ugly, brutal things. The result is a book that can only be described as the perfect union of the two—brutiful—and should be considered essential reading for all.
Taylor broadens the embrace of the traditional campus novel ... The ambiguities are what give Taylor’s writing its strengths: his receptivity to menace in the mundane, subcutaneous sexual vibrations, unconscious motivation ... Taylor also deals deftly, through close third-person narration, with what it’s like to be different in an overculture ... Taylor’s writing is least successful when it’s most self-consciously literary. There are many cliches...Some of the imagery baffles rather than tickles. The lofty register that intrudes whenever a profound observation threatens detracts from the vernacular panache exhibited elsewhere. There are far too many ominous birds skittering around ... There’s also an unevenness in the presentation of character. Miller, seemingly straight before the book starts, is surprisingly comfortable with not just sexual but romantic intimacy with Wallace ... Missteps in style and characterization may be a product of Taylor’s desire to give sufficient weight to his themes ... Still, the juxtaposition of what he has called 'queer, bucolic malaise' with his critique of academic politics keeps Real Life moving with enough bite to forestall encroaching solemnity. With tighter editing and the autobiographical impulse out of his system, what Taylor does next will be worth watching.
... unquestionably the queer novel of the year ... By exploiting the set-pieces of the genre, Taylor exposes a side of the university complex that many pretend not to see, that despite often being portrayed as a great bacchanal of free politics and expression, university campuses can be incredibly oppressive environments for anybody who doesn’t fit within the specific template of white, male and cis ... Real Life also stands out in the pantheon of recent queer fiction ... Taylor proves himself to be an effortless documenter of the domestic. It is a delight to read Taylor in full flow – his characters ricocheting off each other at a dinner party or simply when he is describing someone cooking fish in the middle of the night. Through Wallace, he has created a great tragic protagonist, a character sure to resonate with many as he makes his way through a world that was never made for him. All of this makes Real Life an essential novel from a truly exciting new writer.
That each person is a world unto themselves makes for the tension that emanates from this skillful novel—and Taylor is a master of tension. He has a talent for slowing down scenes, scanning its landscape for gestures that might or might not be imbued with meaning, watching for the exact moment where the mood switches and everything changes ... Though such attention to the minutiae of human interactions, passages about the daily work of graduate scientists, and a large cast of secondary characters who blur into one another at times stalls the pacing, making for an anxious reading experience—this is, in the end, a novel of anxiety: the anxiety of being alive, the exhaustion of being black in America, and the cruelty that is embedded in human interaction. In Real Life, Taylor holds out the pulse of life for us to see, not as something glorious and beautiful, but something dreadful, ugly, and beating—it’s the human heart that Taylor displays in his palm. While Wallace contemplates if he wants to have a real life, Taylor has given us something close to it.
... formally and conceptually testing ... With its icily cool sentences, mysterious tonal shifts and determinedly open ending, Taylor’s novel is also a curiously liquid thing, with troubling, opaque depths ... a nuanced portrayal of gay desire ... Wallace’s principal struggle throughout the novel is with the legacy of sexual violence. Taylor sensitively records his protagonist’s attempts to excavate these deeply buried personal tragedies. In terms of craft, the passage in which Wallace reveals the horrors of his past is a disturbing, virtuosic piece of writing ... Taylor’s treatment of racial politics in the novel is sophisticated and forceful too. Wallace astutely diagnoses the ways his privileged white peers 'have a vested interest in underestimating racism;' the depictions of the micro and macroaggressions he faces as he moves through a predominantly white world are figured with piercing accuracy ... aspects of Wallace’s characterisation...might discourage readers. Taylor is committed to precisely portraying Wallace’s inner life and lived experience as a deeply withdrawn individual, born no doubt from Wallace’s history of abuse. This dedication to psychological verisimilitude involves showing that, for victims, progressing beyond trauma is not always possible. It also involves asserting that people, often and especially those closest to us, might be unknowable. These tendencies mean that, by the end of the book, the narrative often has a somewhat inert, ponderous quality, and Wallace feels curiously indistinct. Ultimately, Taylor renders Wallace always at a remove from us; a figure frustratingly out of reach.
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 ... 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 ... 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.
Taylor writes under the weight of trauma in his debut novel, winding from despair toward something close to hope ... Taylor’s vivid characterization is punishingly effective; his essayistic insights into cultural dynamics and their impact hold searing power. Erotic and ambiguous, Real Life is more provocative than thrilling, but hard to shake.
Brandon Taylor's debut...precisely captures both the dreamy atmosphere and gritty competitiveness of graduate school with stunning grace ... The layers of Wallace’s life are so thoroughly crafted that the overall gravity of his situation seems to sneak up on the reader ... Taylor is able to demonstrate growth in ways that we would not expect from campus novels with younger characters involved ... Each interaction Wallace has with his friends—a dinner party, brunch, a game of tennis—appears normal enough in summary, but Taylor’s detailed descriptions reveal the challenge and loneliness of the situation. Some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes occur because a seemingly-straight friend goes home with Wallace. The next day, their hook-up develops complications, and over the novel’s one-weekend timeframe, the relationship escalates and spirals—at times becoming shockingly violent. These violent moments intrude on an otherwise low-key narrative style, and while this may seem jarring to some readers, it actually aligns quite well with the way Wallace is experiencing other aspects of his life ... As Wallace weighs his options regarding whether to leave school or stay in his program, readers can recognize that the problems of campus life are real world problems.
Real Life...has all the notes of a classic 'campus novel.' It's got academic in-fighting. It's got complex hierarchies—and an associated web of alliances and betrayals—that link friends, lovers and rivals. And, most importantly to qualify for the genre, it's got a vaguely threatening undercurrent roiling beneath a placid collegiate surface. But Real Life tells a story that the others don't, and thus is starkly more 'real' than its peers ... if there is joy in Real Life, it is in Taylor's elegant, thoughtful prose ... With shattering elegance, Taylor suggests that the tolls of abuse and institutional subjugation are malignant and inescapable.
The most important element of Taylor’s work is without a doubt his use of language. Although Wallace experiences numerous atrocities, Taylor somehow keeps us evenly paced and able to withstand the horror. Wallace has trouble expressing and even defending himself in the moment, but Taylor suffers no such failing. Wallace’s internal dialogue is razor sharp on his feelings about what’s happening ... Perhaps because it is the intersectionality of being both black and gay and existing in a community that is not accepting of either that Wallace is able to articulate his frustration so poignantly, though never asserting himself in a visibly productive way (arguably the main flaw of the material).
[Taylor's] voice might best be described as a controlled roar of rage and pain, its energy held together by the careful thinking of a mind accustomed to good behavior ... Wallace’s emotional distance seems at first like a narrative barrier but ultimately becomes the fulcrum of the plot ... in Real Life, the dirtiest things described and enacted are not the scenes we’d call 'explicit'; they are abuse, bigotry and cruelty, expressed in the polite language of a social class Wallace doesn’t want to understand ... Wallace believes he 'isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.' Neither are we, as readers. Sometimes all we get from the universe — or a quietly revelatory novel — is a faint message, a nudge in the direction of something smaller and infinitely larger than a choice of career or partner. It’s not a path but a way of connecting, without shame or apologies for where we’ve been or what we are.
... astonishingly accomplished ... One of the things Real Life does so excellently is to demonstrate that there is nothing casual about the agony and humiliation Wallace is forced to suffer in these instances [of racism] ... With the same precision that Wallace employs in the lab...Taylor dissects the hurt of a life lived at a confluence of precarities: economic, social and familial ... If this makes the novel sound merely depressing, then it would be to do the author a huge disservice. Even at its darkest moments, Real Life is a piercingly beautiful book. In tracing the fault-lines that rip through Wallace’s emotional world, Brandon Taylor has written a truly exquisite story of love, sex, death and microbes that is both intimate and expansive.
Glints of humour provide occasional respite from the weightiness ... 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.
Taylor approaches Real Life with...precision ... In the hands of a lesser writer, the novel could very quickly devolve into an endless discussion of the competing hierarchies of trauma—but Taylor’s commitment to portraying real life and all its messiness spares none of his characters the full consequences of existing in such a space ... Taylor forces his characters to be active participants in the mess of reality. By rejecting their impulse to isolate themselves, he grants them culpability, dignity, and ultimately, humanity.
Taylor describes the surrounding scenery with sharp focus. The prose is exact and clear; Taylor has a keen sensitivity for surface detail. Indeed, surface description and the visual gaze are important features of the narrative ... The white people in Real Life are ciphers rather than characters; this lack of subtlety in their characterisation is at odds with Taylor’s delicate and taut prose style. This is a problem because Wallace’s interaction with these characters is an important part of his estrangement. If they seem lifeless, this renders Wallace cold and sterile too. It is this that ultimately makes Real Life, despite the quality of the writing, a disappointment.
... a precise and intimate narrative about coping with childhood trauma ... Taylor saturates his prose with empathetic and nuanced insights on race, sexuality and abuse ... Real Life is a candid meditation on the effects of grief, loneliness and the layers of silence that run through the tendrils of Wallace’s life ... Taylor has produced an intimate and tender novel about overcoming pain and the debilitating effects of racism and abuse, proving that letting go of trauma is not always possible, and that those closest to us often remain oblivious.
... electrifying ... There are many such feelings we experience in our lives but cannot express due to the lack of appropriate lexical resources. Taylor seems to achieve this effortlessly, and impeccably ... Though it is widely circulated as a campus novel and as a pitch-perfect illustration of Taylor’s autobiographical queer narrative, to this reviewer it also revealed itself as the story of a real life’s transcendence from recollection to reconciliation[.]
As gay black man from the South in the halls of Midwestern academia, Wallace is targeted in large and small ways by these people. And what Taylor shows so powerfully through Wallace is the burden of choices placed upon him by this treatment ... His self-examination mostly plays out in smooth third person, which, along with the campus locale, lovely environmental details and concise, one-weekend temporal setting lends a cinematic quality to Real Life. Taylor so impressively renders character movement and facial reactions that you can feel his camera panning in and out to capture the most important details ... Perhaps the most impressive part of Real Life is the way in which Taylor shows the space and weight that emotions and feelings take up in life ... Taylor is so good at creating conversation, at conveying melodrama with making his work into melodrama ... a brisk but deep novel that really has it all. It contains richly felt drama and intriguing characters that jump off the page with deceptive ease. Though it’s a relatively quick read, we’re given time to think, and absorb, and even cry, but we also get to laugh at characters and judge characters and, like the best art, are invited to judge ourselves, too.
Taylor translates Wallace’s thoughts and conversations with a rare fluidity and writes breathlessly physical scenes, all of which adds to the charged experience of reading his steadily exciting and affecting debut; it’s an experience in itself. He works a needle through Wallace’s knots of race, class, and love, stopping after loosening their loops and making hidden intricacies visible, but before neatly untying them.
Microaggression' is a term anyone paying attention to race and gender issues in America has heard, but in this flinty debut novel, there’s nothing micro about them ... Taylor deserves admiration for making it so clear how racism and homophobia feel ... The novel, by a staff writer at Lit Hub, has generated a lot of buzz, and its unflinching forays into our culture wars are cleareyed. Beyond its status as a testament of political injustice, though, it deserves accolades for its insights into the ways trauma hollows out a person’s soul.
Taylor’s intense, introspective debut tackles the complicated desires of a painfully introverted gay black graduate student over the course of a tumultuous weekend ... Wallace’s inconsistent emotional states when he’s in Miller’s company can be jarring; the novel is at its best and most powerful when Wallace is alone and readers witness his interior solitude in the face of the racism and loneliness he endures. Taylor’s perceptive, challenging exploration of the many kinds of emotional costs will resonate with readers looking for complex characters and rich prose.