Wallace is a fourth-year bioscience grad student at a Midwest institution, studying something that involves carefully breeding microscopic nematode worms. He’s black and gay and his father died several weeks earlier. He didn’t go to the funeral and hasn’t told his friends. There’s Cole, Yngve, Emma, Miller and their various partners, “his particular group of white people” that he’s met through his research. On a Friday night he does something out of character: agrees to meet them for drinks by the lake on the pier. What drives him to do so he cannot begin to comprehend, perhaps driven by a need he cannot put words to. That night he takes the heretofore straight Miller home with him. Over the course of the weekend he will reveal things about himself he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, grapple with his place in the world, and reconsider whether he really wants to continue working with worms.
Wallace has horror in his past in Alabama, but we are only drip fed the details as he goes to the lab, plays tennis, dines and brunches. His friends have their own problems. Cole and his boyfriend Vincent are talking about opening their relationship, Emma’s fiancé Thom doesn’t like her friends, the straight Yngve is probably in love with his gay housemate Lukas. Wallace’s relationship with the brooding Miller starts tenderly, but something darker emerges: Miller also has bad things in his past. Meanwhile at the lab, the pressure and competition are getting to Wallace and his colleagues, particularly Dana. These little fires smoulder through the weekend, many of them coming to a head at a spectacularly disastrous dinner party (I’m an absolute sucker for a charged dinner scene, and this is one of the best I’ve read in a while).
The first half of Real Life had me holding me breath, as Taylor builds his characters and sets the scene for a number of devastating revelations. I found the comedown a little drawn out, and inevitably rather bleak, and perhaps slightly overwritten at times. But these a minor quibbles in an aching novel of finding a place in the world.
The novel’s central occupation is with what constitutes “real” life. It starts at drinks, when Miller asks for “real food” (apparently just not ice cream), and Vincent, who works in finance, says they need “real jobs”. “Real life” is how the students refer to the people who live, work and play outside the university, but it takes on various grander meanings throughout the novel. “Doing things that you can’t take back is what the real world is,” says Vincent from the real world. And later Vincent tells Wallace that “he doesn’t get to fuck it all up for other people. This is real life.” The implication is that Wallace is estranged from real life, only playing at living. He dreams constantly of slipping out of this life and into the next one, although not necessarily in a religious or suicidal way. It explains the unreal sheen of the novel, a slightly distorted and dislocated feeling, as if you’re seeing the world through a plastic sphere, or the glass-encased building which houses Wallace’s experiments. I puzzled over where the novel is set – a deliberately vague city on three lakes with a capitol building (it’s most likely Madison, Wisconsin).
What has caused this estrangement? Certainly the things that happened to him at home, where he should have been safe. While there’s a wonderful fluidity to the sexuality characters in the novel, which dates them as 20-something millennials in a university town, this is still the Midwest, and Wallace grew up in the South. He’s also the first black person to work in the his lab in three decades, and despite the openness of his friends, he is constantly belittled in ways obvious and subtle, by people who explicitly hate him, and those who purport to care about him. The novel is particularly incisive around the culpability of his well-meaning white friends. After a racist remark at dinner, he contemplates the fact that “there will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down.” “Silence and laughter,” he thinks. “This is how they get by.” Then there’s the unequal and unfair treatment Wallace faces at the hands of his lab director Simone. Even if he knows in his heart what is going on, it is too carefully slippery to pin down. “The shadow pain,” is what he calls it, “he cannot say its real name. Because to say its real name would be to cause trouble, to make waves.”
Despite its heaviness, Real Life is often very funny. To dinners Wallace “typically brings crackers or another form of fibre because his friends are full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time.” A woman who may be a competitor in romance “seems nice, but in the way that white people are nice right before they perform some new role in the secret machinery that ruins black people’s lives”. Taylor also has a way with nature, senses and metaphor (I particularly liked the grads’ adulthood “as wet as new moths’ wings”). He creates poetry out of the words of science and sport, creating new possibilities in technical languages.
The third chapter, in which Wallace and Cole play tennis, is so achingly lovely it made my heart stop. I’m bored senseless by sport, but was transfixed by Taylor’s description of their game. After tennis, the two of them go down to the lake and lie in the grass. There’s tension between them, friendship and something more, heightened by the hot late summer afternoon:
The world is all its vastness is still and quiet. Even the birds sit suspended on their perches. A cricket crawls to the end of a yellow piece of grass and beats out several long cries. Then it’s swallowed by a heron.
The chapter ends with new uncertainty in their friendship, but also a stunning grace note:
They get up from the lakeshore just as the game at the stadium is ending. There is a huge cry from beyond, as all the herons and geese alight from the water and take to the air. Grey water falls from their wings, and for a moment it’s like rain.
Gay rating: 5/5 for numerous gay characters, gay sex and queer themes.