Brandon Taylor’s novel “Real Life” casts a calm, illusion-free look at racism in American academic circles.
Wallace, a PhD student in biochemistry “in a Midwestern city,” has no illusions. He will “always be inadequate.” No matter how much his friends like him and how considerate they are supposed to be with him. Because Wallace is black. Black, gay and coming from difficult circumstances. An underdog among privileged whites who cannot understand what it is like “to look like the caretaker and cleaning staff usually look like. What it is like to be eyed so suspiciously ”.
Whites even more do not want to hear that they think and act racistically. “As if they doubted telling the truth, as if they could tell from the mere form of a statement whether it is racist or not. And of course they trust their own judgment unconditionally. “
Brandon Taylor’s critically acclaimed debut novel “Real Life”, nominated for the Booker Prize in 2020, is a bitter reckoning with white America. Racism, as the African-American author knows from his own experience, has many facets, and it causes those affected a “shadow pain” that cannot be breathed away like a temporary tightness in the chest. “This lack of white, of conformity” makes them second-class people from their point of view, “because no one can ever overcome this deficit”.
But “Real Life” is much more than a book about racism. It also tells about what it means to be queer, to be young. To doubt oneself and one’s own life plan. For a weekend, Taylor accompanies his protagonist Wallace, who is having a hard time following the death of his father a few weeks ago, despite protests to the contrary. Memories of his childhood in dire poverty in Alabama come to mind, of the abuse by a friend of his parents’ and a boy in the neighborhood, of the drinking mother who uses alcohol to compensate for the breakdown of her marriage.
Brandon Taylor: Real life. Novel. A. d. Engl. V. Eva Bonné. Piper Verlag, Munich 2021. 350 pages, 22 euros.
His affair with Miller
At the same time, Wallace faces many other problems. His experimental set-up in the laboratory has probably been contaminated by his adversary Dana, and the work of weeks is now wasted. His doctor’s mother advises him to reconsider his future plans. And – he has started an affair with his friend and fellow student Miller, who, unlike himself, has no homosexual experience, but a lot of his own problems.
Wallace’s white friends also suffer from anxiety about the future and relationship stress. Soon they will be leaving university and entering a life whose rules they have yet to learn. Taylor, who studied biochemistry himself before turning to writing, describes a close community of friends who, despite all the familiarity and physical closeness, remain strangely strangers.
Above all, Wallace and Miller are vulnerable souls who hide behind a superficial coolness and don’t trust each other, as much as they’d like to. Their inability to get involved with other people ultimately turns into brute force, leaving them dismayed and perplexed. “Looking at Wallace, Miller wraps the towel around his waist and there is something like a smile on his face, but it disappears immediately, becomes sadder or at least turned inward, darker.”
“Real Life” has the character of a snapshot. No solutions are offered here, no happy ending is promised. But that is precisely one of the strengths of this unusual novel. He describes what is calm and straightforward.