One of my favourite scenes from Brandon Taylor’s first novel Real Life is a disastrous dinner party in which tensions that have been building through the novel detonate. This collection of eleven short stories set in the Midwest also begins with a dinner party, a potluck, which introduces the character of Lionel. Lionel attempted suicide about a year ago, interrupting his maths studies, and he has recently done another stint in hospital. At the potluck he is an outsider (the book is full of them, as alluded to in the epigraph from John), but connects with Charles, a white dancer with a bung knee. They sleep together, which is mostly cool with Charles’ girlfriend Sophie; they have an open relationship.
Five more of the collections’ stories, alternating with others that are in the same world but exist independently, continue the story of Lionel, Charles and Sophie, and, in one case, a peripheral character. In Flesh Charles wrestles with his mediocre dancing ability and his relationship to Sophie; in Proctoring Lionel has coffee with Sophie; later he’ll go back to their apartment. While it is great to see a bisexual character whose bisexuality is easy and unquestioned, and there are some undoubtedly erotic moments, there is something menacing and exploitative about this couple, like the relationship between Wallace and Miller in Taylor’s previous novel. Some of it is perhaps racial; a larger part seems to allude to exploitation all humans desiring connection are capable of.
That feeling of menace is developed further in the other stories, which are in many ways more interesting as Taylor expands his depiction of Midwest life beyond college campuses. It’s suggested in their titles: in Little Beast Sylvia nannies two young twins, including a wild little girl; in As Though That Were Love (what a punch of a title), Hartjes visits middle-aged former lover Simon on his farm. Two woman tentatively begin a relationship in Anne Of Cleves, while Grace has an inoperable tumour, and becomes caught in an old tug-of-war between her grandfather, mother and brother in What Made Them Made You. These are in many ways simple premises, character studies, and the stories do not necessarily resolve, but feel their way to emotional truths.
Perhaps the biggest clue to what Taylor is on about comes in the titular story. Two teenage friends, Milton and Nolan, get high in Milton’s basement on his seventeenth birthday before heading out in the woods to party. Milton, soon to be shipped interstate for an “enrichment program”, wants Nolan, and perhaps vice versa. But “if he cannot ask it, Nolan cannot and will not answer him”. Rather than using their voices, they are driven to more animal modes of expression (the title comes from Home Alone). “What he wants,” Milton thinks:
is not to maim himself but rather to pry open the world, bone it, remove the ugly hardness of it all, the way one might take the spine from a deer or a fish or some other animal snared.
Animalness, in this collection is synonymous with voicelessness, hunger and violence. It is present throughout, in Sylvia’s young ward, in whom she recognises, “what it is to be trapped inside a thing, inside a life”; in a violent act that Hartjes commits and the hunting dogs he trains; in the silences between Grace’s family. It is there particularly in the growing frustration Sophie feels about Charles’ and Lionel’s ability to articulate what they want, and Lionel’s violence towards himself. Pain is also only a hair’s breadth away from pleasure in these stories, such as the “promise of violence” Lionel enjoys when Charles gives him a hickey, and Taylor dives into the murky, grey areas of desire.
It’s telling that the characters who perhaps come closest to satisfaction, the women in Anne Of Cleves, are able to speak more openly about their wants and needs, suggesting the gendered nature of expression. It is ironic and tragic that men have dominated the soap box of public life, but so often find themselves lost for words in private.
The thing that strikes me about Taylor’s writing is his ability to describe bodies, movement, work and labour. In Real Life it was the work of the lab students studying molecular biology, or a steamy game of tennis. Here it’s dance, maths, nannying and in one visceral passage in Mass, a coughing fit:
It was like choking air itself, as if the air were made of fine wool, as if it were fibrous, tickling his throat, exciting a gag reflex … He could feel his stomach muscles contracting, a shuddering heave up against a wall inside him, solid and unyielding.
It is this writing that keeps me coming back.
Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters, themes and sex throughout.