Almost everything about Wallace, an introverted African-American transplant from Alabama, is at odds with the lakeside Midwestern university town where he is working toward a biochem degree. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends. But a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with a young straight man, conspire to fracture his defenses.
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.
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.
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.