Summary from Goodreads:
Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.
Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.
Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
About four or five (six? what is time?) years ago, someone RT’d a reaction gif of Pride and Prejudice (from the miniseries) into my Twitter feed. It was clever and spot on, from a guy named Brandon who was a biochem grad student. He had a whole string of gifs from a live-Tweet of the miniseries so I hit the follow button. I have never regretted it as Brandon shared more and more of his writing, beautiful short stories and personal essays, and his quietly sarcastic humor with us on Twitter and in various literary publications. After he moved to my town for the MFA program in writing, our paths crossed often on campus and at literary events. And I’m absolutely floored by Brandon’s debut novel Real Life. (I’m not surprised, since he’s so damn talented and has a heck of a work ethic, but the book is still a stunner.)
Real Life is a campus novel about a character who is always on the periphery of campus novels – a gay, black, and broke young man named Wallace in a prestigious biochemistry program at a very (very) white Midwestern university. This is not funny like Lucky Jim or navel-gaze-y like The Marriage Plot or Stoner. This is about one weekend in Wallace’s career in graduate school. Three days. One choice (accepting an invitation to hang at the lake with friends after his summer project goes wrong and he just doesn’t have the spoons to restart it that evening) that is the first domino in a chain of many to fall and lead him to the ultimate decision: should he stay in his graduate program and endure all manners of microaggressions and macroaggressions and continue to work doggedly toward his PhD or should he leave and take a chance on the unknown? Underlying all of Wallace’s actions is the knowledge that his estranged father died several weeks ago; no matter how much Wallace might try to keep the past buried safely in the past it bubbles up to confront him.
Wallace’s story is lovely, quiet, and so very, very real (Brandon always says he writes domestic realism and he isn’t wrong). Wallace is the kind of character who feels conditioned to keep an even keel and keep himself to himself, no matter how angry or happy or sad he might feel on the inside, because if he does drop the facade and express emotion he’s immediately smacked down for it. He’s picked on for his “deficiencies” – an absolutely maddening term and one I’ve heard used by faculty in the past to describe students from less-privileged (i.e. often code for “black”) backgrounds – and snidely dismissed by his adviser. His keep-your-head-down-and-work-hard ethic is thrown back at him as arrogant. Even though these events might seem like high drama, Brandon’s prose has such a calm beauty in his description. Even a description of breeding and plating nematodes has such beauty that we are hit with dismay when it’s revealed the plates are colonized by fungi, ruining the project. But it all feels so intimate, so quiet, particularly an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness chapter where Wallace narrates his childhood history to a lover (hook-up? lover? Booty-call isn’t right, either). Such a beautiful character study.
*Edit to add: at Brandon’s reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, he mentioned that some white reviewers see this novel as “raw” (or various similar descriptors) which…definitely not Wallace. I might concede rawness when it comes to showing the racist and homophobic micro and macroaggressions from his friends and colleagues, including one really awful scene where a fellow graduate student (and I absolutely despise this character) uses the n- and f- words before accusing him of misogyny. Brandon isn’t interested in coating their treatment of Wallace in politeness, to make white people feel better. There’s no window-dressing or walking-back to soften these characters. It feels raw because the “nice” and “who mean well” has been removed from the Nice White People Who Mean Well. They’re presented in all their ickiness.
I’m a bit worried I am not doing Real Life justice in my review. Sometimes, you finish a book and just sit in wonder. This book speaks to me on many levels and on other levels I know I have missed nuances. As a nice, white, straight, middle-aged lady, there are corners and layers in Wallace’s story that I will never uncover, no matter how hard I try because I just don’t have the experience or background to see them. To make up for this, allow me to link to three incredible reviews of Real Life, all by men who are both black and queer: Michael Arceneaux in Time, Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times, and MJ Franklin also in the Times.
Real Life is an early contender for one of my best books of 2020 (and 2020 publishing is bananas, y’all). Please, please buy it, read it, recommend it for your library to purchase. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Brandon’s short story collection, Filthy Animals. Real Life is available everywhere in the US today!
Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and will be buying a copy at Brandon’s reading tomorrow. Also, he’s a friend, so take that as you will.