A FINALIST FOR THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE
A NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS' CHOICE
“A blistering coming of age story” —O: The Oprah Magazine
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.
Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.
Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
“[A] stunning debut . . . Taylor proves himself to be a keen observer of the psychology of not just trauma, but its repercussions. . . . 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.”
—Jeremy O. Harris, The New York Times Book Review
“Equal parts captivating, erotic, smart and vivid . . . [rendered] with tenderness and complexity, from the first gorgeous sentence of his book to its very last . . . Taylor is also tackling loneliness, desire and—more than anything—finding purpose, meaning and happiness in one’s own life.” —Time
“[ Real Life is] a sophisticated character study of someone squaring self-preservation with a duty to tolerate people who threaten it. The book teems with passages of transfixing description, and perhaps its greatest asset is the force of Wallace’s isolation, which Taylor conveys with alien strangeness.” —The New Yorker
“ Real Life is a tender, deeply felt, perfectly paced novel about solitude and society, sexuality and race. It explores what the past means and, with brilliance and sympathy, dramatizes the intricacies of love and grief.” —Colm Tóibín
“A blistering coming of age story. . . [Taylor] is so deft at portraying the burdens that befall young queer people of color and the forces that often hamper true connection.” —O: The Oprah Magazine
“Brandon Taylor emerges as a powerhouse . . . . In tender, intimate and distinctive writing, Taylor explores race, sexuality and desire with a cast of unforgettable characters.” — Newsweek
“A perfect, meditative read.” – USA TODAY
“Both calm and quiet and furiously dramatic, internal and external, Real Life moves like, well, real life—but with a key difference. Real life itself can be super boring. But Real Life . . . is utterly captivating all the way through.” —Isaac Fitzgerald, The Today Show
“Taylor’s vivid characterization is punishingly effective; his essayistic insights into cultural dynamics and their impact hold searing power. Erotic and ambiguous [and] hard to shake.” – Entertainment Weekly
“With the rigour of the laboratory, Taylor wields scalpel-like prose, putting human behaviours under the microscope . . . precise and masterly.” — Financial Times
“What Taylor does next will be worth watching.” –The Washington Post
“A novel of quiet, startling power.” —Harper’s Bazaar
“Psychologically compelling, incisively satirical, told in a muted style that nevertheless accesses a full emotional range, this is a brilliant book, worthy of a wide audience.” — The Guardian
“Astonishingly accomplished . . . Even at its darkest moments, Real Life is a piercingly beautiful book. In tracing the fault-lines that rip through Wallace’s emotional world, Brandon Taylor has written a truly exquisite story of love, sex, death, and microbes that is both intimate and expansive.” —Times Literary Supplement
“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. . . . The exquisite tension in Taylor’s litany of physical details underscores the harshness that threatens the scene’s placid surface. . . . The details here have the savor of the real.” —Bookforum
“ Real Life is a great American novel, a great college novel, a great summer novel, a great queer novel, a great novel of life as it has always been lived by young people waiting for their 'real life' to begin, and just a really, really great novel. . . . It's the best novel I’ve read this year.'” — Dazed
“Brandon Taylor’s Real Life doubles as a great grad student novel (most attempts trade in stereotypes; this offers the real, complicated, dark thing) and a great, positively Persuasion-like novel about the relationship between consciousness and embodiment.” —Commonweal
“A poignant, exacting story. . . . Taylor is an extraordinary cartographer of Wallace’s loneliness, crafting a finely wrought story of academia, intimacy, and identity.” — Esquire
“Real Life asks questions many of us shy from: Who is entitled to pain? How useful is an apology? Can sharing our feelings free us from them? . . . Amid the flurry of new novels drifting down like so many balloons, Real Life is the one weighted with confetti.” —The Paris Review
"Taylor brings the precision of a scientist to his descriptions of Wallace’s desires and defenses. . . . [capturing] the ennui of those caught between the lure and the loneliness of academic science, trapped in an existence that doesn’t qualify as a 'real life.'" —Forbes
"Astounding." —LA Review of Books
“[Taylor] is as keen an observer as his subject is, and he writes with extraordinary precision: about the academy, and queerness, and race, and trauma, and ambivalent friendship, and desire. About all the things that, put together, make up something approaching real life.” —Constance Grady, Vox
“Taylor shares a talent for acerbic social commentary and smart dialogue with fellow ‘campus novelist’ Sally Rooney. . . . a deeply moving study of race, grief and desire.” — The Sunday Times
“ Real Life poignantly illustrates the dissonance of not feeling accepted or understood at an institution that aggressively markets itself as immaculately progressive.” —The Guardian
“A literary breakthrough.” –Interview
“Brandon Taylor’s bravura first novel… shines a vital light on race, class and sexuality, and in doing so leaves his reader in no doubt as to his unique voice and talent.” – Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Taylor's writing is vibrant as much as it is brutal in its elegance and poignancy” – Paper
“A masterful debut.” – LAMBDA Literary
“A book wonderfully observant on the toxicity of whiteness, and a reminder of what even the smallest racial slights can do to the body and mind.” – Wired
“As a stylist Taylor has, sentence by sentence, crafted an experience of bone-deep pleasure for the reader that stands not at odds with the melancholy of the tone of Wallace's story but in loving support of it. The penultimate chapter alone is a knockout, and its end would have been a magnificent closing for the book had the actual final sentence, a few pages later, not surpassed it.” —Salon
“In the character of Wallace[,] readers are gifted one of the most compelling and original characters in recent memory.” — The Advocate
“No one with a former life as a biochemist should be able to write a novel as devastatingly good as Real Life is, but here we are.” — Thrillist
“The best portrayal of an introvert’s inner and outer life in recent memory. With smooth prose and a deeply nuanced protagonist, Real Life is one of those timeless stories that also perfectly captures a generational moment.” —LitHub
“Just as Sally Rooney’s second novel perfectly captures the intimacies of a young relationship, Brandon Taylor’s provocative debut tests the boundaries put in place by a queer, black graduate student.” —Bookpage
“Taylor is a writer who really gets the indignities of inhabiting a human body, how the physical is so intimately tied to the emotional. . . . Wallace is a heady mix of judgmental and vulnerable, and it’s hard not to root for him even if he decides to blow his life up.” —Vulture
“Brandon Taylor’s long-anticipated debut novel tackles timely issues while introducing a compelling protagonist who will stick with you long after the final page.” —Paste
“One of those books that perfectly captures a generational moment while also feeling timeless.” —Sarah Neilson, Them
“Taylor’s perceptive, challenging exploration of the many kinds of emotional costs will resonate with readers looking for complex characters and rich prose.” —Publishers Weekly
“Breathlessly physical . . . steadily exciting and affecting . . . [a] charged experience.” —Booklist (starred review)
“There is writing so exceptional, so intricately crafted that it demands reverence. The intimate prose of Brandon Taylor’s exquisite debut novel, Real Life, offers exactly that kind of writing. He writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with nuance and tenderness and complexity. . . . Truly, this is stunning work from a writer who wields his craft in absolutely unforgettable ways.” —Roxane Gay
“The affections and disaffections of grad school life are shot through with the searing experience of white racial presumption and blindness in Brandon Taylor’s vivid and exacting Real Life.” — Adam Haslett
“This book blew my head and heart off. For a debut novelist to disentangle and rebraid intimacy, terror, and joy this finely seems like a myth. But that, and so much more, is what Brandon Taylor has done in Real Life. The future of the novel is here and Brandon Taylor is that future’s name.”
“ Real Life is a gorgeous work of art, and the introduction of a singular new voice. Through Wallace, the book explores the tension of a person trying to become himself while surrounded by people who can see him only as their own projection. Even as Brandon Taylor dives beneath the level of polite surface interaction and into the ache of what people conceal from one another, or reveal only as weaponry, his sharply rendered observations make it a true pleasure to spend time in this book’s world.”
“ Real Life is one of the finest fiction debuts I've read in the last decade—elegant and brutal, handled by an author whose attention to the heart is unlike any other's. A magnificent novel.”
—Esmé Weijun Wang
“A few summer days, a group of friends, a difficult intimacy—with the simplest materials, Real Life reveals the knives we pocket in good intentions, our constant, communal sabotage of love. Brandon Taylor’s genius lies in the elaboration of ever more revelatory gradations of feeling; in his extraordinary debut he invents new tools for navigating the human dark in which we know one another. He is a brilliant writer, and this is a beautiful book.”
About the Author
Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature’s
Recommended Reading and a staff writer at
Lit Hub. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all. The lake was dimpled with white waves. People coveted these last blustery days of summer before the weather turned cold and mercurial. The air was heavy with their good times as the white people scattered across the tiered patios, pried their mouths apart, and beamed their laughter into each other's faces. Overhead, gulls drifted easy as anything.
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. It had been a couple of years since he had gone to the lake with his friends, a period of time that embarrassed him because it seemed to demand an excuse and he did not have one. It might have had something to do with the crowds, the insistence of other people's bodies, the way the birds circled overhead, then dive-bombed the tables to grab food or root around at their feet, as though even they were socializing. Threats from every corner. There was also the matter of the noise, the desperate braying of everyone talking over everyone else, the bad music, the children and dogs, the radios from the frats down the lakeshore, the car stereos in the streets, the shouting mass of hundreds of lives disagreeing.
The noise demanded vague and strange things from Wallace.
There, among the burgundy wooden tables nearest the lake, he saw the four of them. Or, no, more specifically, he saw Miller, who was extraordinarily tall, the easiest to spot. Then Yngve and Cole, who were merely tall, and then Vincent, who just scraped under the bar of average height. Miller, Yngve, and Cole looked like a trio of pale, upright deer, like they belonged to their own particular species, and you could be forgiven, if you were in a hurry, for thinking them related. Like Wallace and their other friends, they had all come to this Midwestern city to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry. Their class had been the first small one in quite some time, and the first in more than three decades to include a black person. In his less generous moments, Wallace thought these two things related, that a narrowing, a reduction in the number of applicants, had made his admission possible.
Wallace was on the verge of turning back-he was uncertain if the company of other people, which just a short time ago had seemed somehow necessary, was something he could bear-when Cole looked up and spotted him. Cole started to flail his arms about, as if he were trying to elongate himself to ensure that Wallace could see him, though it must have been obvious that Wallace was looking directly at them. There was no turning back after all. He waved to them.
It was Friday.
Wallace went down the half-rotten stairs and came closer to the dense algal stink of the lake. He followed the curving wall, passed the hulls of the boats, passed where the dark stones jutted out of the water, passed the long pier that stretched out into the water, with people there, too, laughing, and as he walked, he glanced out over the vast green water of the lake itself, boats skimming its surface, their sails white and sure against the wind and the low, wide sky.
It was perfect.
It was beautiful.
It was just another evening in late summer.
An hour before, Wallace had been in lab. All summer he had been breeding nematodes, which he found both boring and difficult. Nematodes are free-living, soil-dwelling microscopic worms, only about a millimeter when fully grown. His particular project was the generation of four strains of nematodes, which then had to be crossed together very carefully. It involved, first, the induction of a genetic lesion that was to be repaired in such a way as to yield a desired modification-the termination or amplification of genetic expression, the flagging of a protein, the excision or addition of a segment of genetic material-that was to be shuttled from one generation to the next, handed down like a gap or freckles or left-handedness. Then there was the simple yet careful math required to combine that modification with other modifications in other strains, changes that sometimes required a marker or a balancer: a tweak to the nervous system that gave the creature a rolling rather than sinuous behavior, or a mutation in the cuticle that rendered the nematodes thick like miniature Tootsie Rolls. There was also the dicey prospect of generating males, which always seemed to result in animals that were too fragile or uninterested in mating at all. And then, as always, the dissolution of the worms and the extraction of their genetic material, which had a way of revealing, after weeks of careful breeding and tracking of multiple generations, that the modification had been lost. Then it was a mad scramble, days or weeks spent backtracking through old plates trying to locate the modification among thousands of teeming progeny, the wild and fevered relief of locating-at the last possible moment-the golden nematode in the mass of wriggling animals, and then the resumption of the slow, steady breeding process, herding desired chromosomes and wicking away the undesired ones until the sought-after strain emerged at last.
All through the beautiful days of summer, Wallace had been working and failing to breed this one strain. An hour before, he had been in lab, removing from the incubator his boxes of agar plates. He had been waiting three days for this generation to roll into the next, just as he had been waiting months for this result. He would gather the babies, the fine, almost invisible hatchlings, and separate them, until at last he had his triple mutant. When he checked the status of his nematodes, however, the tranquil blue-green surface of the agar, uncannily like human skin in its soft firmness, was not so tranquil.
It looked disturbed, he thought.
No, not disturbed. He knew the word for it.
Mold and dust, like one of those horrible re-creations of a volcanic event-whole civilizations frozen in ash and soot and coarse white stone. A soft pelt of green spores covered the agar and concealed at first an oozing bacterial film. The gelatin looked as if it had been scoured by the end of some rough brush. Wallace checked all of his plates in all of his plastic tubs and found shades of horror on all of them. The bacterial contamination was so bad that it leaked through the lids and onto his hands like pus from a wound. It was not the first time his plates had become contaminated or moldy. This had been common in his first year, before his technique and cleanliness improved. Before he knew to be vigilant, cautious. He was different now. He knew enough to keep his strains safe.
No, this level of carnage seemed beyond the scope of mere carelessness. It seemed entirely unaccidental. Like the vengeance of a petty god. Wallace stood there in lab, shaking his head and laughing quietly to himself.
Laughing because it was funny to him in a way that was difficult to clarify. Like a joke leaping unexpectedly from an entirely random arrangement of circumstances. In the past few months, for the first time in his four years of graduate school, he had begun to feel that he might be at the edge of something. He had gotten to the perimeter of an idea, could feel the bounds of its questions, the depth and width of its concerns. He had been waking with the steadily resolving form of an idea in his mind, and this idea had been pulling him through all the unremarkable hours, through the grit and the dull ache when he woke at nine to return to work after going to sleep at five. The thing that had been spinning in the brilliant light of the tall lab windows, like a speck or a mote of dust, had been hope, had been the prospect of a moment of brief clarity.
What did he have to show for all that? A heap of dying nematodes. He had checked them only three days before, and they had been beautiful, perfect. Into the cool darkness of the incubator he had placed them to sit undisturbed for three days. Perhaps if he had checked them the day before. But no, even that would have been too late.
He had been hopeful this summer. He had thought, finally, that he was doing something.
Then, in his in-box, the same as every Friday: Let's go to the pier, we'll snag a table.
It seemed to him as good a decision as he was capable of making at that moment. There was nothing left for him to do in lab. Nothing to be done for the contaminated plates or the dying nematodes. Nothing to be done for any of it except to start again, and he did not have it in him to take the fresh plates from their place on the shelf, to lay them out as if dealing a new hand of cards. He didn't have it in him to turn on his microscope and to begin the delicate work necessary to save the strain if it wasn't already too far gone, and he wasn't ready to know if it was already too late.
He did not have it in him.
To the lake he had gone.
The five of them sat in a curious, tense silence. Wallace felt like he had interrupted something by showing up unexpectedly, as if his presence somehow shifted the usual course of things. He and Miller sat across from each other, nearest the retaining wall. Over Miller's shoulder, a veil of delicate roots latched to the concrete, dark insects teeming in its recesses. The table shed burgundy paint like loose hair from a mangy dog. Yngve pulled gray splinters from bald patches left by the paint and flicked them at Miller, who either didn't notice or didn't care. There was always something vaguely annoyed in Miller's expression: a subtle snarl, a blank stare, narrowed eyes. Wallace found this both off-putting and a little endearing. But tonight, resting his chin on his hand, Miller just looked bored and tired. He and Yngve had been sailing, and they still wore their tan life vests open over their shirts. The tassels of Miller's vest dangled like they felt bad about something. His hair was a tangle of damp curls. Yngve was thicker and more athletic than Miller, with a triangular head and slightly pointed teeth. He walked with a permanent forward-canting posture. Wallace watched the muscles in his forearms tighten as he dug out more shards of weathered wood, rolled them into little bundles, and flicked them from the end of his thumb. One by one they landed on Miller's vest or in his hair, but he never flinched. Yngve and Wallace caught each other's eye, and Yngve winked at him as if his mischief were a private joke.
On Wallace's side of the table, Cole and Vincent had brought each other as close as possible, like they were on a sinking ship and were praying to be saved. Cole stroked Vincent's knuckles. Vincent had pushed his sunglasses back across his forehead, which made his face seem small, like that of a needful pet. Wallace had not seen Vincent in some weeks, maybe not since the barbecue that Cole and Vincent had thrown for the Fourth of July. That had been over a month ago now, he realized with a thrum of anxiety. Vincent worked in finance, overseeing chunks of mysterious wealth the way climate scientists tracked the progression of glaciers. In the Midwest, wealth meant cows, corn, or biotech; after generations spent providing America with wheat and milk and poultry, the Midwestern soil had given rise to an industry that built scanners and devices, a harvest of organs, serums, and patches sprung from genetic mash. It was a different kind of agriculture, just as what Wallace did was a different kind of husbandry, but in the end they were doing what people had always done, and the only things that seemed different were meaningless details.
"I'm hungry," Miller said, sliding his arms open on the table. The suddenness of the gesture, his hands sweeping close to Wallace's elbows, made Wallace flinch.
"You were right there when I ordered those pitchers, Miller," Yngve said. "You could have said something then. You said you weren't hungry."
"I wasn't hungry. Not for ice cream, anyway. I wanted real food. Especially if we're drinking. And we've been in the sun all day."
"Real food," Yngve said, shaking his head. "Listen to that. What do you want, asparagus? Some sprouts? Real food. What even is that?"
"You know what I mean."
Vincent and Cole coughed under their breath. The table tilted with the shifting weight of their bodies. Would it hold them? Would it last? Wallace pressed against the slats of the tabletop, watching as they slid on slim, dark nails.
"Do I?" Yngve crooned. Miller groaned and rolled his eyes. The flurry of easygoing taunts made Wallace feel a little sad, the kind of private sadness you could conceal from yourself until one day you surfaced and found it waiting.
"I just want some food, that's all. You don't have to be so obnoxious," Miller said with a laugh, but there was hardness in his voice. Real food. Wallace had real food at home. He lived close by. It occurred to him that he could offer to take Miller home and feed him, like a stray animal. Hey, I've got some pork chop left over from last night. He could caramelize onions, reheat the chop, slice bread from the corner bakery, the hard, crusty kind, soak it in grease or batter to fry. Wallace saw it all in his mind's eye: the meal made up of leftovers, converted into something hearty and fast and hot. It was one of those moments in which anything seemed possible. But then the moment passed, a shift in the shadow falling over the table.
"I can go to the stand. If you want. I can buy something," Wallace said.
"No. It's fine. I don't need anything."
"Are you sure?" Wallace asked.
Miller raised his eyebrows, skepticism that felt like a slap.
The two of them had never been the sort of friends who traded kind favors, but they saw each other constantly. At the ice machine; in the kitchen where they took down abandoned plates and bowls from the shelves to eat their sad, brief lunches; in the cold room where the sensitive reagents were kept; in the hideous purple bathrooms-they were thrown together like surly, unhappy cousins, and they needled each other in the amiable manner of enemies too lazy to make a true go at violence and harm. Last December, at the departmental party, Wallace had made some offhand comment about Miller's outfit, called it something like the folk costume of the Greater Midwestern Trailer Park. People had laughed, including Miller, but for the next several months Miller brought it up whenever they were together: Oh, Wallace is here, I guess the fashionista will have some comment, then a flash of his eyes, a chilly, crooked smile.
Such a Promising Idea.....
I was really looking forward to this new novel. It got great reviews by well respected critics, and the idea of the story, a young black, gay guy in a doctoral program that was very predominately white, and all that that would entail, looked very promising. Reading a little...
Excellent writing/ boring topic
I want to give Brandon Taylor full marks for being a wonderful writer. He has a lovely style even if he does occasionally slide into MFAishness. But this novel centers on a group of vapid graduate students and their very tiny triumphs and tragedies. There is no plot. If you...
Superb work of art
Brandon Taylor's book about Wallace, a graduate student, and his lab colleagues, is stunning. A wonderful look at the routines of pressures for an academic, it is primarily an accounting of the buttoned-up Wallace. His perceptions of the world around him are incisive and...
Elegantly written, poignant, real
Taylor, in this book about Wallace, a black gay biomedical sciences graduate student, and his fitting into - or not fitting into - the world of white nerdy friends, some gay some straight, gives a window for me (a white gay man) into the thoughts, history, fears,...
Wallace was insufferable
While I agree that the writing in this book is good, the main character is self-pitying and almost impossible to continue reading about. The rest of the characters weren't exactly well-defined either. It's a journey, but it's one of my least favorite books of the year.
A perfect novel
Great. Like Franzen-level or Morrison-level great. The narrator's the rarity of a fully developed gay character. The dinner party thing gone wrong is pitch-perfect. The tightening web of horrible office politics in the lab is amazing while also allowing for a bit of myopia...
Navigating life, appropriate with the lake right there,
graduate life, lab life, apartment life; the point at which past lives, unknown to those of the present life, sit glaring, daring to be shared; the present lives full of questions about future lives. Sealed on campus, away from anything other what goes on inside research...
Raw and amazing book
Real Life is a powerful book set in the midwest, dealing with tough issues over a seemingly average weekend. It is a great novel that you should dive into.