Well, one dinner party and one “dinner thing.”
I’m suseptable to seeing tenous connections and patterns in books. I succumbed to this impulse over the summer, drawing conclusions about Paul Beatty’s influences that are not borne out in reality, and I fear I’m about to do it again. Except for one blazing detail, that makes me think I must be right, but I’ll leave that for last…
In Real Life, Brandon Taylor tells the story of Wallace, a Black grad student at an unnamed, mostly-white school that is understood to be the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wallace’s regular weekend routine of lab work, tennis, and angst is interupted by a last minute invite to a dinner “thing”, which starts out benign enough but soon Wallace finds himself under attack by his so-called friends. The dinner party is the central scene in the novel, and is much celebrated by Taylor’s contemporaries as, well, real, and necessary.
I found it overly dramatic on first read. But then I read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and wondered whether his late-1930s alcohol-soaked dinner party scene wasn’t the model for Taylor’s 2010s vegan hispter potluck, and if Taylor wasn’t responding directly to it.
Crossing to Safety follows the life of Larry Morgan, his wife Sally, and their friends, married couple Sid and Charity Lang over a period of about thirty-five years. At the outset, their grad school days are over, but just, and Larry is newly teaching at, yep, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Larry and Sally are outsiders, without friends or family, until they are taken under the wing of the Langs. The instigating incident in the novel is also a dinner party, the format of which seems a little strange (square dancing? group singing? poetry reading?), but like the one in Real Life, there are shifting alliances and passing slights that build to bigger resentments.
Eighty years separate these parties, but the similarities are striking, beyond the drama and the UWM setting. There are nervous entrances (Wallace agonzies over what the bring, Sally makes her husband drive around the block so they don’t arrive first), Ivy league snobs (A guest actually pulls the “I went to college near Boston” on Wallace. (Do people do this?) while a “high-crotch, short-leg, baggy-tweed” guest boasts to Larry about who he studied with at Yale), and microaggressions galore (The dreadful Roman helpfully suggests that Wallace not quit his grad studies due to the “outlook” that is likely given his “challenging background” and “deficiencies”; while fellow professor Marvin Erlich, who is Jewish, is shushed when he tries to talk about politics, and it’s noted that he “has only his salary” and doesn’t fit in, that he “gives himself away, like the Russian agent who ate jam with a spoon”.)
Both parties are disrupted by a dramatic outburst, but then continue along merrily, like it never happened. Marvin’s wife seethes when she feels he’s shown up by another guest during the poetry reading portion of the night (“My husband can read Greek too!”), while Wallace shifts the unwanted attention from Roman onto a couple contemplating an open relationship, revealing that one party has gone a little farther than contemplation (“So when you were on the app last night, Vincent, were you just looking or did you really plan to fuck someone else?”).
The Crossing to Safety dinner party was certainly more enjoyable to read. Perhaps because it didn’t challenge me as much. Or perhaps because it was seventeen pages long to Real Life’s forty-five (!) and spared me the minutia of every dish, how bland, the texture, the crumbs and grease left behind – the food summed up as “Chicken Kiev, saltimbocca, escallope de veau, who remembers what?”. But reading both together makes Wallace’s experience seem like a response to Larry’s quick, and quickly dismissed, confession:
Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way, but I don’t think so. I think we simply felt that they Ehrlichs didn’t permit themselves to be part of the company
In Wallace, we get a glimpse of what it might have been like for Marvin and Wanda, to be invited but not welcome, tolerated but not accepted, to have colleagues greet you just a little less enthuisatically, and choose topics of conversation that pointedly don’t include you, to leave early to the palpable relief of the other guests:
The fact is, no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people, no matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him.
And Wallace comments directly on the propensity of people simply ignore the unpleasantness around them:
Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass of them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened.
For the rest of Crossing to Safety, it is exactly as if it never happened. We never hear from the Erlichs again. The dinner party kicks off a new and joyous chapter for the Langs and Morgans, but is just another in (presumably) a long line of minor discomforts for Marvin and Wanda, who don’t know the words to the sing-along songs, though they do know how to read Greek, if only they were asked.
Is the dinner “thing” in Real Life actually a response to the dinner party in Crossing to Safety? In my mind it is, though I suppose only Mr. Taylor knows for sure.
Though the most obvious detail, which didn’t even jump out at me until I was writing this, suggests that I may be onto something. You probably already noticed that Taylor’s semi-autobiographical grad student is named Wallace… like… Wallace Stegner. Coincidence?