Real Life by Brandon Taylor really got to me. It’s an academic novel, first of all, which I love. In this case, the main character, Wallace, is in graduate school for Biochemistry. He spends as much time as he can in the lab working on experiments with nematodes, experiments that don’t always go well. Colleagues in the lab don’t always treat him well and his relationship with her supervisor is uneasy. That right there is enough to make me want to keep reading — trouble in graduate school makes me tense.
It’s also a novel that takes its time explaining the characters’ feelings. The story takes place over one weekend, Friday evening through Sunday evening, and the characters have some EMOTIONS. I love a book that takes its time capturing every nuance of encounters and conversations.
Wallace has a group of friends, but he still feels like an outsider. He comes from a poor family in Alabama and had a difficult childhood, so he is wary of his more privileged classmates. Wallace is also the only Black student in his cohort, and one of the very few people of color where he’s studying, so he has had to deal with racism of varying levels of overtness.
He overcomes his impulse to isolate himself and hangs out with his friends on a late-summer Friday night, and the plot proceeds from there. I won’t get into the details of what happens, but Wallace, who is gay, finds himself in an unexpected relationship that challenges his isolated, closed-off tendencies. He’s trying to figure out whether he can be vulnerable. He’s also trying to figure out whether he wants to stay in grad school any longer.
The novel was painful to read, but in a good way. Wallace is such a sympathetic figure (if sometimes infuriating — but realistically, understandably!) that it is hard to see him suffer. The racism he experienced was painful, his insecurities are painful, his struggles in grad school are painful, but Taylor captures all this with such care that it’s a pleasure to read. It’s also a very literary novel, with nods to Virginia Woolf and shades of Jane Austen. There’s just so much to love.