Something no one tells you about being an adult is that, at the end of the day, no one is going to make you do anything. No one is going to make you get a job, make you pay your bills, make you eat healthy or just generally make you get your life together — at least not in the way your parents made you clean your room when you were a kid. Sure, you might have friends and family who will be genuinely concerned when something seems to be going wrong, but as an adult, you’ll rarely ever be forced to do anything about it. It’s ultimately up to you whether you pay any mind to other people’s concerns about you. This, in a word, is responsibility.

Brandon Taylor’s debut novel “Real Life” explores the tension between responsibility and the psychological dysfunction resulting from childhood trauma. The story is told from the perspective of Wallace, a gay Black man from Alabama who has recently begun his PhD program at a predominately white Midwestern university. Though one may imagine plenty of dramatic tension arising from this situation alone, it plays a far more subtle role than anticipated. Broad social commentary takes a backseat to the minutiae of Wallace's subjective experiences. Rarely does Wallace’s race or sexuality play an explicit role in his interactions with people, remaining an easily ignorable shadow for most of the novel, only to periodically cut through with a force backed by the entirety of America’s injustice against Black and queer people.

Conflict arises as Wallace attempts to navigate a number of delicate social situations. Challenging situations with his friends and colleagues force Wallace to confront many of his neuroses. One of these conflicts is with Dana, a new member of Wallace’s PhD program who he suspects sabotaged one of his lab experiments in retaliation for what she perceived as Wallace talking down to her; this culminates in a heated verbal argument. Wallace is an introverted, conflict-averse person, so dealing with this situation causes him emotional stress. Another one of these tensions, which looms over the entire story, is his friends’ reactions to the recent death of his father. Taylor suggests that Wallace has a tumultuous relationship with his parents, so he doesn’t go to the funeral or even think much about the death, which occurred a few weeks prior to the events of the novel. Wallace tells just one of his friends about it, and only because he was somewhat forced to. Hours later, his entire friend group knows, but Wallace doesn’t know how to handle their sympathy. He doesn’t feel particularly sad about it, and doesn’t really know how to feel about it at all. So when his friends offer their condolences, expecting him to be sad, he has trouble reacting in a way that would ease their discomfort. He finds himself managing their emotions more than being supported by them. 

These are just a few of the social challenges Wallace faces that prompt him to confront his own inner conflicts. Being the focus of a character-driven novel, these inner conflicts are Taylor’s most captivating plot device. Wallace’s primary drive is to avoid thinking about the traumatic events in his past, particularly a sexual assault and the resultant poor relationship with his family. Wallace dodges these memories by focusing all his attention on his graduate work and avoiding situations where he needs to open up and feel vulnerable. Consequently, Wallace’s inner monologue fills most of the space of the book, but as he is thrust into various interpersonal conflicts, his efforts to isolate himself from others become increasingly fraught. Despite the lack of an eventful plot, the book doesn’t lack drama. Wallace is a particularly keen observer of both himself and the people around him, which makes for some detailed narration. We watch him pickup on all sorts of emotional subtleties while simultaneously blocking out negative emotions related to his past trauma. With the story taking place over just a weekend, the novel has a slow pace, but the incredibly rich narration keeps the reader engaged throughout. Readers who skim Wallace’s long inner monologues will inevitably miss an important observation, a poignant emotional moment or a dramatic shift in tone. There are few lines that feel superfluous, making the slow pacing worthwhile.

“Real Life” is a powerful character study. Taylor perceptively depicts a layered, complex persona in Wallace. The story is gut-wrenching and moving, giving the reader much to think about as they watch Wallace grow. “Real Life” is impressive in its own right, but even more so considering that it’s Taylor’s first novel, making me eager to see what else he might have in store.

Daily Arts Writer Sejjad Alkhalby can be reached at salkhalb@umich.edu.

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