MARCH 24, 2020
BRANDON TAYLOR’S REAL LIFE follows one late-summer weekend in a Midwestern university town. Wallace, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry, arrives to his lab to find his latest experiment — the result of months of painstaking work and a key part of his senior colleague’s dissertation — sabotaged. It is hard to explain to a humanist quite how traumatic this discovery would be: imagine, for instance, that someone burned your book manuscript, destroyed your laptop, then sent a poison-pen letter to your publisher. That comes close.
Wallace, having spent his entire summer working until midnight under the fluorescent lights of the lab, decides that after this disaster, he might as well “meet his friends at the pier after all.” From there, the web of relationships into which he has fallen — over his five years in the program — starts to unravel, until he is left Monday morning facing the dawn, uncertain whether he will “leap out of his life and into the vast, incalculable void of the world.” In other words, when the weekend — and the novel — ends, “real life” begins.
Real Life can be construed as a book about the central themes of coming of age or racism in the academy. Generically speaking, it is a “campus life” novel, where the central character happens to be a gay black man. None of these readings are wrong, exactly. But they sidestep the sophisticated formalism at work in the novel. Bounded in time by a single weekend, held in tension by Taylor’s spare, restrained syntax, and given no more than a handful of central characters who continue to find new ways to hurt each other, Real Life by rights should read like a closed-in, misanthropic comedy in five acts.
It never shades into that closed-in misanthropy, managing instead to maintain an astounding naturalistic sensibility: we are less comfortably watching these characters in a glassed-in trap of the author’s own making than we are drawn into their inner lives, even when those lives are racist, selfish, or violent. The novel shares DNA with Mrs. Dalloway in this way: Taylor’s parsimony with time, facility with simile, and precise measure of the human heart are a match for Woolf’s.
That comparison should feel off. After all, Woolf’s sentences routinely take up an entire page, and Taylor’s feel luxurious when they stretch over a single line. We can start with the surface similarity of their opening sentences:
“It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all.”
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Taylor gives us more information (late summer, dead father, cool weather). But both characters begin with a small, seemingly inconsequential action (to decide, to say) and both constitute the central character’s identity in relationship to a patriarch, the Mrs. of Mrs. Dalloway implying Mr. Richard Dalloway in parallel with Wallace’s dead father. By the end of both novels, the protagonists do not do anything so facile as suddenly discover a self-righteous, independent identity — Clarissa can no more escape the war than Wallace the weight of an Alabama summer — but they emerge, just barely, from an identity triangulated through trauma to one grounded on the self’s desire to experience the world.
Where Woolf holds open that possibility of self-actualization for Clarissa through her stream-of-consciousness narration, Taylor does it through simile. Throughout Real Life, simile is the window through which the reader, and Wallace, can glimpse its figuring of “real life,” which here indicates both the novel as a whole and its conception of a real life. Taylor consistently paints the reader’s need for that simile as a need to see pain as or like something else to believe it. This empathy deficit aligns the reader uncomfortably with Miller, Wallace’s violent love interest:
What then, does Miller see in the set of Wallace’s jaw, the wetness in his eyes, the tension in his throat, where he is already bruising, the way he shifts his weight restlessly because he cannot be comfortable in his own skin now? What does Miller make of him, Wallace wonders. Can Miller see his hurt the way Wallace can see his? Seeing pain requires a correlate if you are selfish. Does Miller have a correlate for Wallace’s pain as it is now, arranged and waiting for a conduit into the outside world?
This passage does not deal with empathy in the colloquial sense of “to feel bad for someone,” or worse, to “understand how someone feels,” but with a proxy understanding that must be brokered through the imperfect medium of language. Taylor marks that understanding here as visual: it must be seen. “Seeing pain requires a correlate if you are selfish,” thinks Wallace. A visual “correlate,” at the rhetorical level, is metaphor or simile. To understand a, we must understand it to be like b.
Taylor uses metaphor sparingly in 327 pages, preferring to clearly mark his “correlates” with a like or as. Metaphor, unlike simile, lets the reader and the narrator share in an identity clam: a is b, as we see here: “His voice is streaked with moisture, a windowpane in the rain. […] Cole is one of those fat fish that circle near the underside of a vast plain of ice in winter, showing their scales through the dull frost, the whites of their bellies.”
In the symbolic language of Real Life, Wallace marks Cole as vulnerable, transparent, and easily understood: he is a “fat,” spoiled fish that shows its belly, a soft, easy target. Cole is in fact not like this at all. He winds up a more complex character than Wallace initially gives him credit for in the first third of the novel. Metaphor here marks a slippery point in the text, where Wallace and the reader together assume a is b, not that a might, in a flawed, human understanding, be roughly like b. Likeness is not identity: that is both its weakness, as a foundation for knowledge, and its strength.
The language in Real Life works to translate the pain of others into mental images the reader can understand. In the same way, Wallace’s experiments translate the bodies of nematodes into bars and dashes of gel electrophoresis. Refigured as scientific data, what was hidden inside their bodies is made legible, if you are “selfish” enough to kill them for that “correlate” of understanding. Transforming one thing into another for the sake of understanding it is always, in the logic of Real Life, cruel. But it is cruel in the unintentional, brutal way a virus is cruel, “convey[ing] illness, disease, irreparable harm.” Throughout the novel, Taylor never lets the reader forget that approximating the experience of others comes always through rhetorical violence and that the cost of that understanding is, often, “irreparable harm.”
In keeping with the way Wallace thinks of pain as a viral infection, Taylor’s similes lean hard on nature. Humans are “like fish,” sometimes “like moss,” and grief is like “a flock of birds in the sky.” Water covers the text, infiltrating every scene: someone is always sailing, swimming, drinking, bathing. People are like varying kinds, weights, and species of fish. Wallace drinks too much water and vomits; he cannot swim; he takes baths that are too hot; he drinks too much coffee; in general, he has a hard time managing water on both the symbolic and literal levels. It keeps infecting his thoughts and in turn his similes, which, as I list above, are mostly aquatic or aquatic-adjacent (herons, geese, moss, et cetera).
This structure operates both on the macro and micro level of the narrative. In an extended flashback, Wallace tells Miller about the “cold flat surface” of the past “under him, undulating like a sea under ice.” The primal scene of the novel, where this past is locked away, takes place over eight pages. Those eight pages begin with the daily thunderstorms of a Southern summer, “so much rain” in the biblical “joining of many waters.” The storm kills baby birds, flinging them from their nests where fire ants take them apart, piece by piece. Wallace, too, is thrown from safety, but he does not die: unlike the baby birds, he is “no longer unfledged” after his abuse, but he survives through creative and varied self-harm. At the end of the flashback, he carefully explains to Miller, “[W]hen you 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 […] [W]e become ghosts when our past catches us.”
Wallace clearly believes this pronouncement. Taylor does not. The deluge of that summer storm infiltrates the present-time narration in nearly every paragraph; “dark water” crops up again and again as a key image in the text. When things are not explicitly aquatic, they “froth,” they “stain,” they feel “waterlogged.” The past is troublesome; it thaws and seeps from the “sea beneath ice” in which Wallace has attempted to trap it. In particular, it affects the ways in which he relates to other people, only able to understand them as if through or under water.
I want to stress that Real Life is not so simple a novel as to be about redemption or recovery. Wallace is not “better” at the end, whatever that means in a pop-cultural narrative moment that demands both trauma porn and easy recovery from its black writers and characters. But, while on the one hand, the figurative language in the novel points out how cruel the need to understand others like or as something else must always be, on the other, it opens a door to understanding the self as like one’s trauma but not equivalent to it. If the first sentence of the novel anchors Wallace seemingly irrevocably to the past and the patriarch (dead father), Real Life’s extensive, careful use of simile holds the past and the future in tremulous tension. We are like our fathers, who are less our literal fathers than our past and our participation in a seemingly preordained pattern of behavior, but by extension, we are also in some way not like them. And in that figurative space of similarity rather than equivalence, or simile rather than metaphor, lies the “yellow light” of the sun, burning away the “mist of morning,” the last drop of water in Wallace’s very long weekend.