Pictures from an Institution

Real Life BY Brandon Taylor. New York: Riverhead. 336 pages. $26.

The cover of Real Life

HOW DO YOU WRITE A POLITICAL NOVEL IN 2020? How do you not write a political novel in 2020? It is impossible to imagine a contemporary writer presenting a version of the world that is not marked in some way by Trumpism, the threat of ecological catastrophe, the deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the spectacle of racist police brutality. Yet the process of digesting the various horrors of the present into prose isn’t always noble. There is a way to use the novel as a balm to soothe the tempers of people who see themselves as opposed to cruelty, to violence, to climate disaster. 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.

Real Life takes as its subject the trials of Wallace, a Black, gay biochemistry doctoral student at an unnamed but clearly realized University of Wisconsin-Madison, and follows him through an end-of-summer weekend that contains both a harrowing professional setback and a confusing personal revelation. 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.

At the center of Real Life is the hypocrisy and cruelty of the university as an institution. The students around Wallace work hard, are ambitious and focused on their goals, but they are also miserable, stressed out, anxious about their futures. The baseline assumptions are that the faculty and the administration ride them hard, and that the life of a graduate student is painful and exhausting. But Taylor makes it exactingly clear that the generalized experience of misery that unifies the graduate students has a sharper and more violent edge in Wallace’s case. Remembering a particularly painful episode, in which a supposedly gifted lab mate had shifted the blame for her own incompetence to him, Wallace thinks: “Gifted is the sweetness meant to make the bitterness of failure palatable—that a person can fail again and again, but it’s all right, because they’re gifted, they’re worth something. That’s what it all tracks back to, isn’t it. . . . That if the world has made up its mind about what you have to offer, if the world has decided it wants you, needs you, then it doesn’t matter how many times you mess up.” The central point of the academic plot in Real Life is that in the case of certain kinds of students—white, well connected, economically privileged—giftedness is more legible. The converse, that other students’ giftedness is obscured or erased or just ignored, is also true.

One of the lies of the liberal academic elite is that it is meritocratic. Another lie is that it is liberal where race, gender, and sexuality are concerned. Wallace knows about these lies because he knows his own experience. Early on in his studies, another student had suggested that Wallace’s presence in their graduate program is due to his race, not his talent or ability. Any person of color in the academy or anyone who has known a person of color in the academy in the last fifty-odd years is surely familiar with this gambit, a comment usually voiced by insecure white students, but one that all too often lines up with the implicit biases of the faculty and administration. In academic life, racism is an acknowledged wrong, but it also inflects every interaction racially marked students have with the university itself. The lie, the biggest one, is that the university—once you’re in it—is built for recompense, and that it will shelter and protect students from the racism and sexism of the wider world. But as Wallace discovers, the university not only fails to protect him from such cruelty. The university—as an institution, as a structure of belonging, and as a place of work—is predicated on it.

Alex Gardner, The Coast is Clear of Guarantee, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 24".
Alex Gardner, The Coast is Clear of Guarantee, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 24". Courtesy the artist

This point becomes brutally explicit when Wallace helps Dana, the student who lied about his work, make oligo strands of DNA. Despite Wallace’s better preparation and technique, Dana refuses to listen to his advice as she works on the nematodes that will receive altered DNA strands:

He tried to help her. He talked softly, quietly. He waited even when he knew the animal was dead. Once she turned to him with such a look of pride on her face that he thought she’d finally done it, but when he looked at the animal under the scope, he saw that it was beyond dead. Its insides had ruptured out and backed up into the needle end itself. It was awful, a gruesome death.

Dana’s hubris doesn’t destroy her experiment, but her inattention wastes time and the microscopic lives of their experimental subjects. Still, their adviser, Simone, says, “Dana is bright, bright, bright.” Perhaps Wallace shouldn’t speak down to her. Later, when Wallace, who has suspected Dana of destroying his own experiment, tries to absolve her of blame, she responds with an outburst. Though she uses racist and homophobic slurs, she still manages to think of herself as the victim in their exchange: “If I say you’re a misogynist, then you’re a misogynist,” she tells him. It is not just that Wallace is left to care for Dana and act as the midwife for her supposed brilliance. It’s that Dana’s carelessness is in itself a cruelty, and bears violent fruit.

Taylor builds this violence into even the most generative relationships that white characters have with Wallace. There is some of Thomas Hardy’s supersensitiveness in Taylor’s natural descriptions, and some of Theodore Dreiser’s merciless moralizing in his concept of social evil. But the writer who came most to mind as I read Real Life was James Baldwin, especially the erotic Baldwin, attuned to social pressure and violence, and deeply committed to the power, the uneasy force, of sex. Taylor is a writer of bodies at attention. In an early scene, Wallace helps Miller, his eventual lover, clean his eyes of chili. The episode is one of incandescent eroticism, cataloguing the sensation of physical closeness to someone you desire with an almost savage precision: “Miller grunted. He opened his eyes. The milk struck the inside of the sink with a soft tapping sound. He poured half the bottle into Miller’s eyes, and then thoroughly wet two paper towels. He squeezed the water into Miller’s eyes, which were brown with little blue rims on the outside. The whites of his eyes were already starting to redden.” Wallace’s desire, sleepy, awakening, colors the scene: “He looked down at Miller, saw his sun-bleached hair, his long eyelashes. Wallace felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach.”

The details here have the savor of the real. Wallace runs to a concession stand to buy a small bottle of too-expensive milk—$3.50—to clean Miller’s sore eyes. The bottle sweats, condensation on its sides. The moment is erotic, tender, but the language also evokes violence and fear; Wallace feels a kick, not a kiss. The exquisite tension in Taylor’s litany of physical details underscores the harshness that threatens the scene’s placid surface. Toward the end of the novel, Wallace eavesdrops on Miller and another colleague, Yngve, as they talk after a communal meal:

He needs to know what they are talking about because he is afraid—the rising chill at the nape of his neck, the heat of blood in his nose—that they are talking about him. His senses sharpen. The smell of grease from dinner. The tinny drip of water into the basin sink. The hiss of resin as it burns, as the plant matter in the vape pen congeals. . . . In that moment, Wallace sees it all, the whole world, deepened and shaded, can feel them, can hear them, knows even before they do what action, what motion will come next, and he steadies himself.

This is a vision of vigilance. Wallace’s concern in this moment is needless; Yngve and Miller aren’t talking about him, and their camaraderie expands easily to make room for him. But the vibration he feels, the surety that he is on the outside of their communion looking in, runs through the novel. What Taylor says here, in this delicate, attentive passage, is that Wallace will always be careful. Wallace will always play a role that succors the white men and women around him, because to keep them calm keeps him safe. Wallace, though, doesn’t get to be safe. Even when he is on the periphery, obscured from view, he is always aware that should they notice him, he must be on his guard.

Later, when a student takes Wallace to task for a perceived slight, Taylor writes: “Wallace nods slowly, carefully, making sure that the gesture is immaculate, perfect, a faultless contrition. He can do this. It is a skill in life, serving this function, to be contrite, to pay obeisance.” It’s a step toward limiting himself, to diminishing his needs, because his needs will never be acknowledged or remediated fully by this community, by these friends. It’s the step Wallace always must make to enter their world, a world they have built around themselves, and which will never let him in unscathed.

Claire Jarvis is the author of Exquisite Masochism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She is working on a book about British genre fiction.