Brandon Taylor ‘Real Life’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Real Life”: In order of reading book number 5.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening.


Brandon Taylor takes us to a Midwest university where the research assistants are working hard for the opportunity of a career and thus life in academia. Taylor concentrates on a group of young researchers arrived at the same time. There was Miller, a tall lad from Indiana, Cole and his partner from the real world Vincent, Yngve whose father was a surgeon and whose mother taught history at a liberal arts college. And then there was Wallace, the book is really about Wallace who is up from Alabama and black, the opening quote telling us how he sees his friends.

This is yet another book in the selection with serious problems going forward from parent son relationships, Wallace whose mother drank weak beer all day because of her diabetes and whose father leaves them and somehow manages by this to define Wallace’s view of the world:


When I went to middle school my dad moved out of our house he says, he moved up the road into this other house my brother’s dad had built. It used to be an art gallery or something, a house first then an art gallery and then a house again, anyway my dad moved into it and he lived there, I wasn’t allowed to visit . He said he did’t want to see us any more. I asked him why and he said it didn’t matter why, it just was. He didn’t want to see us, me, anymore. Wallace is circling the rim of this old bitterness, can hear his dad’s voice rising up out of the past, that raspy laugh. He shook his head and smiled at Wallace put his hand on Wallace’s shoulder, they were almost equal height then, his fingers bony and knobby. He simply said I don’t want you here and that was it, Wallace was not granted an explanation for the break, for the severing of his family that left him in the house with his mother and his brother. He learned then that somethings have no reason that no matter how he feels he isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.


So, having just watched a documentary on Toni Morrison, I recognise a certain number of the messages in her writing here. Choosing to set the story in an almost exclusively white Midwest university lets Brandon Taylor give full rein to Wallaces feeling of estrangement in his own country, to casual racism and general lack of support for him from his “friends”. As Wallace has had difficulties with his studies, having to work really hard to catch up with the others from a lower starting knowledge base, he understands that in the eyes of some, this was not his initial dissadvantage and that the real dissadvantage will never go away. The smooth talking and racist Romain explains this to him against the background of non intervention from the others:


His deficiencies ….What Romain is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness a lack of some requisite saneness, this deficiency cannot be overcome the fact is no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people. No matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him. “Did I hurt your feelings” Romain asks “I just want to be clear, I think you should stay, you owe the department that much don’t you agree?”
“I don’t have anything to say to that Romain”, Wallace says smiling. To keep his hands from shaking he clenches his fists until his knuckles turn to white ridges of pressure.
“Well think about it.” he says.
“I will thanks”. Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to, no one does, no one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by because if they are silent long enough then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it had never happened. Only Wallace will remember it, that’s the frustrating part.


Amid Wallace’s difficulties with his supervisor who wants him to really consider what he wants to do with his life and his homosexual relationship with Miller where they come close to getting to know something about each other and the sub-surface violence of Miller scares him, he comes to realise that “Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty, maybe that’s all they are doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.” And then there is this quote, the very essence of the book, which explains that Wallace just wants to be noticed and to be looked at as a person with this whole book explaining the impossibility of this simple wish:


Are you on that app?
Which app?
You know the one. Cole flushes as he says this looking away to the trees and to the long winding sidewalk that slopes down to the lake.
The gay one you mean?
That’s it yeah.
Oh yeah, I guess, sometimes.
Wallace deleted the app some weeks ago but this feels like a minor point Cole has always made sure to mention that he is not on the app and that he is relieved to have found Vincent before the advent of such technology, geo-location, finding the nearest queers for fucking or whatever. Wallace always has to keep himself from saying that Cole would have done well on the app he is tall and good looking in an average sort of way he is funny and quippy, gentle. He is also white which is never a disadvantage with gay men but Wallace says none of these things because to say them would disrupt Cole’s view of the average gay man as shallow and kind of stupid, they are shallow and kind of stupid but no more than any other group. Wallace only deleted the app because he had grown tired of watching himself be invisible to them, of the gathering silence in his inbox he wasn’t looking anyway but at the same time he wanted to be looked at the same as any one else.


This is a slow, persistant book, introspective about Wallace. What do you think he would/should do with his life from here?

First Published in English as “Real Life” by Daunt Books in 2020