Why aren’t more people talking about “Real Life?”
I came across this book when the Booker longlist was announced, a debut effort from Iowa Writers Workshop alum Brandon Taylor.
In a stroke of luck, I was able to get it from the library in no time flat — and I consider myself lucky, because when word does finally get out, the wait list is going to be a long one.
Because “Real Life” is a book that demands to be read slowly, and requires not just open eyes but an open heart, so that its protagonist, Wallace, has a safe place to crawl into.
Oh, Wallace. It’s been a while I’ve wanted to save a character from this much pain. If you’ve read “A Little Life,” think of Jude. Yeah, it’s like that.
Set on (unnamed, but easy to figure out) the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus over the course of a weekend, “Real Life” explores science grad student Wallace’s personal demons as he tries to re-engage with friends after the recent loss of his father, a man he barely knew.
Wallace is not coupled, but a number of his friends are, and he seems to self-identify as a reticent fifth wheel. Wanting to be involved, and when involved, longing to be alone again. Uncomfortable in his own skin, he struggles for acceptance while at the same time being just impulsive enough to try to disrupt the lives of those around him. (Although, honestly, both Roman and Vincent are as assy as assy gets.)
It’s within this group of friends that Wallace eventually finds himself tangling both physically and emotionally with Miller, a fellow grad student, also somewhat aloof and on the periphery, and clearly trying to come to grips with his sexuality.
This story is so much more than a “Can I be happy?” or “Am I gay? What does this mean?” kind of story — it transcends the basic premise of the narrative and for me, was more about how people cope with their damaged pasts. Both Miller and Wallace have tragic tales to tell — Wallace, by far, the most horrific — but the manner by which both move through their daily lives is equal parts heartbreaking and maddening.
One of the most consequential pieces of Taylor’s exquisite prose comes midway through the book, after Wallace shares a piece of his childhood with Miller:
“I sealed it all behind me, because when you get to go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you. You can lay it down. You can leave it for the ants. There comes a time when you have to stop being who you were, when you have to let the past stay where it is, frozen and impossible. You have to let it go if you’re going to keep moving, if you’re going to survive, because the past doesn’t need a future. It has no use for what comes next. The past is greedy, always swallowing you up, always taking. If you don’t hold it back, if you don’t dam it up, it will spread and take and drown. The past is not a receding horizon. Rather, it advances one moment at a time, marching steadily forward until it has claimed everything and we become again who we were; we becomes ghosts when the past catches us. I can’t live as long as my past does. It’s one or the other.”
Oh my God. I mean, right? Given that I know what happened to Wallace, I can’t believe how this approach to mental health is the healthiest and the most effed up approach that I’ve ever read, all at the same time. On one hand, Wallace’s past requires years and years of therapy to be able to process and move forward. But you could also argue that if the most effective means for putting one foot in front of another is to shut that part of your life away, then OK.
But Wallace, is it working? Doesn’t seem like it. Oh, and Dana? Wallace, you tell her to fuck right off. Everyone is behind you on that.
I loved, loved, loved this heartcrushing read, and I would highly recommend it for a book club pick — there is so much to unpack. Relationships, lives, love … it is all so messy. Taylor’s novel deserves all the attention coming its way.