Real Life by Brandon Taylor

A group of graduate students are cruel to one another in an astonishing variety of ways over the course of a weekend. This book’s greatest weaknesses is that that’s really what happens, in the pages, in the scenes. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that—it’s centered on intimate and nuanced explorations of the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, and culture, and some moments are pretty uncomfortable to read because the criticism is so spot-on (with the anger and resigned sadness that go with it).

All of that is incredibly valuable and belongs in the literary conversation, far more than it is (although I think there’s been progress in that realm, in terms of what sorts of books are getting attention and recognition). But as a novel? I’m not sure this quite gets me there. Taylor depicts prolonged arguments where two people are just touchy, reactive jerks to each other, for pages and pages. We can see behind that to some degree, to the pain and trauma that leads them to act that way, but that makes it emotionally astute, not narratively successful. I came away with the feeling that I had seen a situation, a person, a culture depicted quite vividly and astutely, that I had seen a piercingly accurate recreation of an all-to-common and damaging dynamic, but not that I had read a story.

This is Taylor’s first novel. I hope he takes these considerable skills and insights with him and journeys into deeper adventures of plot and structure.

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