“Real Life” Captures Both the Dreamy and Gritty Qualities of Grad School

Brandon Taylor’s debut novel Real Life precisely captures both the dreamy atmosphere and gritty competitiveness of graduate school with stunning grace, and it went on to become a finalist for the 2020 Booker Prize after its original February 2020 hardcover release. In this “campus novel,” the main character, Wallace, is a gay Black graduate student studying nematodes, who we follow through a particularly troubling weekend as he and his friends prepare for the fall semester.

The layers of Wallace’s life are so thoroughly crafted that the overall gravity of his situation seems to sneak up on the reader. A variety of triggers and traumas are woven into Wallace’s existence, but he encounters each of them with resignation. Despite being old enough to have made it to graduate school, Wallace does not seem to be fully mature. Because Wallace is older than the typical coming-of-age protagonist, Taylor is able to demonstrate growth in ways that we would not expect from campus novels with younger characters involved.

Each interaction Wallace has with his friends — a dinner party, brunch, a game of tennis — appears normal enough in summary, but Taylor’s detailed descriptions reveal the challenge and loneliness of the situation. Some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes occur because a seemingly-straight friend goes home with Wallace. The next day, their hook-up develops complications, and over the novel’s one-weekend timeframe, the relationship escalates and spirals — at times becoming shockingly violent. These violent moments intrude on an otherwise low-key narrative style, and while this may seem jarring to some readers, it actually aligns quite well with the way Wallace is experiencing other aspects of his life.

Wallace is the only Black member of the group, and though there are other gay men in his friend group, none of them understand Wallace’s specific situation. Similarly, female characters try to align themselves with Wallace, but their experiences are distinctly different. With no other Black people to talk to, Wallace feels increasingly isolated. The narration calls attention to these feelings in ways that are clear but infrequent. For example, during a dinner party, someone makes an obviously racist comment, but Wallace’s friends remain silent, and the narrator observes that “Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That’s the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.” Commentary like this carries even more weight because it takes up very little space within the novel.

Through its intense examination of Wallace’s individual situation, the novel explores the concept of “real life” more broadly. It seems that many people have an idea of school as an existence outside of “real life,” and some characters in the novel express this belief as well. However, the novel suggests that all parts of our lives are “real.” The high school job is a real job. College life is real life. As Wallace weighs his options regarding whether to leave school or stay in his program, readers can recognize that the problems of campus life are real world problems. They are not less important or less interesting because he is a student, and though he may experience things differently outside of school, the experiences would still be very real.

Real Life
By Brandon Taylor
Riverhead Books
Published February 18, 2020
Paperback February 16, 2021