Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I don’t know Brandon Taylor in real life, but it sometimes feels like I do. He’s prolific on Twitter, but doesn’t stick to a particular persona or schtick. He tweets all kinds of stuff and in all kinds of moods. It’s the kind of Twitter account that draws me in, and in this case, convinced me to buy a debut novel (see also: Colin Barrett).

So while I acknowlege that Twitter is not real life and I don’t actually know Mr. Taylor, after following him for several months, I feel confident in saying that he did not write Real Life to educate the likes of me, a 39-and-three-quarters-years-old white Canadian woman, about racism and sex. There’s also this article in the Guardian that says so pretty explicitly. And yet!

The exact nature of any race or sex-realted epiphanies I experienced while reading Real Life aren’t very important or interesting (to you), but I’ll hint at one example that demonstrates the subtley of how this novel works, which surprised me, because on the surface it can be quite unsubtle in what it’s trying to do.

At one point, when our hero Wallace was wallowing in angst and self-doubt, I found myself frustrated, thinking, “Oh Wallace, why don’t you just stop caring what everyone thinks of you!” I realized, immediately and in horror, that’s exactly what Dana would say. Wallace’s nemesis in the lab where they’re both graduate students, and described as “cartoonishly evil” by a Goodreads reviewer, Dana is the mean-girl embodiment of white feminism and NOT someone you want to relate to.

The realization about Dana’s (and my own) dismissal of Wallace’s feelings came many dozens of pages after the only significant Dana scene, so the effect was subtle, even if her character wasn’t.

There’s a nice-girl embodiment of white feminism, too, named Emma, and as an aside, I love that the girls have the most basic names while the boys are all named things like Miller and Vincent and Yngve.

I almost didn’t make it far enough to reluctantly relate to these awful women, though. And that’s down to a stylistic choice Taylor makes that jarred me over and over again. It’s not something I’ve seen addressed in many reviews, so this could just be me: it’s how he describes things with simple but bizarrely-chosen words and similes. Early on, Wallace describes various white people congregated around a lakefront entertainment area:

…athletic parents, whose faces were tight in the sort of way that fit people carry; several tables of frat boys all in tank tops, their skin so healthy in the milky dusk light under the trees that they almost glowed with possibility; and groups, here or there, of older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.

The description of “athletic parents” – okay, I kind of like that one. The description of the frat boy’s skin glowing with possibility – boring, but fine, I guess. But that last one, the simile, is a real clunker. And there are so many descriptions like this, and so many bad similes. This one made me gasp:

He runs the water into a battered gray pot and sets it on the electric range. The stove groans to life. The abandoned, mismatched mugs crouch in the back of the cupboard like children in foster care.

A few pages back, bottles of fluid in a lab are described as sitting “in stubby white plastic racks like peering children”. Wallace learns to read a former colleague’s temper “the way mammals on doomed islands learn the slow, unwinding signs of an eruption”. Where the similes aren’t bizarre and strained, they’re clichéd: an exam is “like a firing squad”. A weight is “like an albatross”. Clothes are shed like skins.

I also didn’t have a lot invested in the reinvention of the campus novel or skewering of academic life that pervades the story. I see people on Twitter raving about a dinner party scene that left me pretty cold. Real people, adults, act like this? Dramatic confrontations about dating apps over vegan food? I never did figure out how old anyone was supposed to be, but probably too old for a lot of these shenanigans. Campus novels are just not my thing (The Idiot being the exception that proves the rule).

About halfway through, the style seemed to abruptly change. Or maybe I got a lot more invested in the story and stopped noticing this stuff. I went on to get a lot out of this novel, but had I not been a Twitter fan, and had I not picked this up in full-priced hardcover, I might not have made it through.

I’m still glad I read it, and would recommend it. And, incidentally, if you’re a Mrs. Dalloway fan, I strongly recommend you read it. If I’d read Mrs D. recently enough to catch all the references and not just the obvious ones, this probably would have been a better (as in, better written by me, and more positive) review. If you’ve got the Mrs. D expertise, please read and review this book!

10 comments

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  2. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I read this one this month also and loved a lot of it. (Dana, on the other hand, was so grating! As she was meant to be.) I do agree about the awkward descriptions and similes, though I chalked it up to a bit of debut overwriting. I was able to overlook most of those moments this time, but if they persist in future publications I’ll have to rethink my stance!

  3. Café Society

    The similes that you quote remind me of a problem we had in the tests for 10 and 11-year-olds here in the UK some years ago. We were told that we had to give the children a mark if they used a simile or metaphor in their written work. Whether or not the choice of words was appropriate was deemed to be immaterial! Someone, somewhere had definitely missed the point.

  4. Laura

    That quote is a bit awkward! I actually like each of the similes/metaphors individually but I agree that it’s too much to pack them into one paragraph. It’s a problem shared by the novel I just finished, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; Russell is BRILLIANT at similes etc but tends to put too many too close to each other.

  5. annelogan17

    I like the sound of this book. I agree some of those similes are clunky, but in general I like that type of writing because it forces me to slow down. I can’t say I’ve read alot of Campus Novels lately, but now you have me intrigued with The Idiot. And because of your recommendation, I now follow him on twitter 😉

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  7. Rachel

    This is interesting! It sounds like it was mostly effective but those examples of your problems with the prose… yikes. We’ll see! As you know I also love Brandon Taylor on twitter so I’m hoping this works for me.

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