REAL LIFE by Brandon Taylor

From the Jacket

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.

My Thoughts

Brandon Taylor’s REAL LIFE is essentially a portrait of what it means to be queer, black, and introverted in a Midwestern science graduate program. Main character Wallace is an extremely fragile soul, unhappy and miserable in his current state, dreaming of a “real life” outside of the science lab. The novel takes place over the course of a weekend, wherein Wallace finds himself caught in a number of awkward, cringe-worthy and also extremely racist situations. As a reader, I felt an enormous sense of anxiety and worry for Wallace, and by the time I reached REAL LIFE’s conclusion, I felt intensely invested in his well-being and I just wanted to see him happy.

“The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth as if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment.”

Throughout the course of the novel, Wallace is forced to make some pretty tough decisions, and he faces some really difficult challenges as an anxious introvert and as a black man. REAL LIFE puts forth incredibly poignant insights on racism and mental illness, specifically within the grad program of a Midwestern university, but I can’t help but feel the message was danced around where it could have been more explicitly stated. The novel as a whole feels understated and subtle, which adds a real sense of beauty to Taylor’s words, but personally I was hoping for a grander conclusion to Wallace’s tale, and I would’ve liked to see Wallace grow and develop more by the end.

REAL LIFE is dripping with endless paragraphs of description. Taylor really knows how to set a scene that engages all of his reader’s senses. While reading, I not only knew how Wallace was feeling, but I knew what he was seeing and hearing and even smelling. REAL LIFE makes its reader a part of the action; I felt like I was right there alongside Wallace, shadowing him through a weekend in his life.

REAL LIFE by Brandon Taylor is an absolutely gut-ripping, heart-wrenching story. The longer I spend away from it, the more memorable it proves to be! While I was a bit letdown by the ending, Taylor’s beautiful, descriptive prose completely made up for it. I cannot believe this is Taylor’s debut; I’m beyond excited to see what he comes up with next!

Further Reading

“Pictures from an Institution” by Claire Jarvis, Bookforum
“Real Life is a New Kind of Campus Novel” by Erin Orbey, The New Yorker


  1. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I read this one a few months ago and it remains one of my standout reads of the year. I can understand your wanting things more explicitly stated and wishing to see more development from Wallace, but the subtlety and very short timeline worked so well for me. I thought this was such an impressive debut, and I second your eagerness to see what Taylor will do next!

    Liked by 1 person

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