Book Review: Real Life

Another read from the Booker longlist! Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black 4th-year PhD student in a rigorous and predominantly white biochemistry program at the University of Wisconsin. Taking place over a particularly eventful summer weekend, Real Life illustrates the pain of trying to fit into white spaces as a person of color.

The book: Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Real Life is a novel that somehow manages to be compulsively readable, incredibly moving, and full of brilliant social commentary. The story takes place over a single summer weekend, dissecting the way each event – from failed laboratory experiments, to microaggressions by his well-intentioned white friends – contributes to Wallace’s frustration and mental fatigue. Because the emotional impact of Wallace’s experience is so deeply explored, Wallace is a very well-developed character despite the novel covering such a short timespan.

In addition to being beautifully written and intimate, Real Life is also full of excellent social commentary. Taylor shows how Wallace is subjected to dozens of microaggressions on a daily basis, how his white friends make him carry their white guilt, and how even his non-white friends make conversations about Wallace’s struggles about how they are struggling too, stop being so selfish! These dynamics play out in Wallace’s friend group, with his lab-mates and graduate advisor, and even in his most intimate relationship. Taylor demonstrates the massive mental and emotional toll this all takes on Wallace: Wallace is aware of the casual racism in the spaces he occupies, and he recognizes the behavior of his peers as unfair, but he doesn’t stand up for himself because having to experience that casual racism on a daily basis is already exhausting enough.

Real Life also provides great commentary on how racial trauma compounds other traumas. Wallace finds the casual racism in his friend-group and graduate program emotionally exhausting, but he is dealing with other stresses too: unresolved childhood traumas, the death of his father, and the pressures of his demanding graduate program. When Wallace talks to his white friends about his problems, though, they respond by sharing the ways in which they relate to him, implying that their experiences are the same (which of course, they aren’t). This point – that being a graduate student or healing from trauma isn’t stressful for Wallace’s white classmates in the same way that is for him, because Wallace has to deal with racism on top of everything else – was something that I really appreciated, and I thought that Taylor did an excellent job of clearly showing this without explicitly stating it.

I took one main issue with Real Life, and that was the single chapter of the book that is told from Wallace in the 1st-person (the rest of the book is written in the 3rd-person). In this chapter, Wallace is telling the story of a traumatic childhood event to the guy he is hooking up with. It is a beautifully written chapter, but as a story that Wallace is supposed to be telling to someone he doesn’t know that well, it just wasn’t believable for me.

*Minor spoiler in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!*

I also want to mention that one of the relationships portrayed in this novel is extremely unhealthy. The scenes involving this relationship were particularly painful to read, and because Taylor’s commentary is shown rather than told, Wallace never explicitly grapples with the fact that the relationship is abusive. While frustrating and heartbreaking to read about, I do think this relationship brilliantly (and horrifyingly) illustrates the way Wallace has been conditioned to endure pain. In So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says that being Black in America is like being in an abusive relationship, but the abuser is society as a whole – Wallace’s unhealthy relationship in Real Life definitely brings this point to mind.

Overall, I thought Real Life was phenomenal. The writing was strong, the main character was complex and well-developed, and the social commentary was incredibly moving. Although I had a couple minor issues with it, I am so glad that I read Real Life, and am excited to check out whatever Taylor publishes next. I highly recommend this novel.

Trigger warnings: sexual violence, racial slurs.