Brandon Taylor’s ‘Real Life’ and Contemplating Black Male Interiority
Is interiority a new word? The squiggly red line beneath it suggests that it might be. A quick search informs me, whether new or not, that interiority exists both as a concept and practice in literary circles. Literary agent, Mary Kole defines it “as a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles, and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel.” She further counsels would-be authors:
You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to define interiority. It’s to have readers live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist.
I’ve just finished reading Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, and now I’m thinking about not just interiority but specifically Black male interiority, because that is the book’s triumph, page after ever-lovin’ page. Taylor gives us a whole Black queer man as a protagonist whose inner life is rich, complex and wonderfully nuanced.
My next impulse here is to insert all kinds of disclaimers, like micro insurance policies against the risk of false interpretation and shoddy literary analysis. I have yet to find much joy in the parsing of characters’ lives and decisions in written form. I do, however, feel a need to understand how reading a book, a work of fiction, changed me.
While I could simply encourage/implore/insist that you pick up this book and savor the author’s sensational craft and knock-your-socks-off capacity to bring you into his characters’ worlds, I need to say more. I want to think more about what this read did for me. I’m inviting you to come along.
Wallace — main character, Black male, gay, in grad school in biochemistry at a Midwestern University, 4th year in.
Wallace in the midst of a group of peers he refers to as friends who are all white and a mix of gay and straight.
Wallace with a difficult past in Alabama he has worked hard to shed and move beyond. Home is not a term he uses to describe where he came from. I’m only noticing that now.
Wallace over the course of a weekend constantly weighing the costs (immediate and potential) of intimacy and/or staying alone, of giving and receiving, of saying things out loud and maintaining a silence. He thinks over the benefits of these things, too, yet all of these calculations comprise more than binaries. Through Wallace’s reflections we get to explore deep and wide spectra of possibility; of what is and might be.
Sex has its own role. Not entirely independent of Wallace but it speaks its own language, brings itself to bear on the story in ways that caught me off guard. Rather than an aggressor, sex functions more like an usher — at times surly but consistently with a purpose, a prize in mind.
Whiteness is the all encompassing bubble in which these stories take place.
Wallace identifying and being identified as gay — both/and. Sexual orientation is not one of Wallace’s overt struggles. He knows who he is on this account.
A likely/unlikely storm of connections/collisions between Wallace and tall, curly haired Miller.
Taylor knows his white people. The bubble of Midwestern research academia populated by a cast of deeply believable and fallible characters warms me from the first page on. He describes Wallace seeking out “his particular group of white people” at the pier on a Friday evening. Just that hint tells me so much of what I need to know. Wallace is navigating a sea of whiteness. Me: aha, familiar.
I think about the way “friends” as a concept shows up. Wallace’s friends remind me of sitcom and romcom TV series casts — all white, quirky and oddly bound to each other in myriad minor and major dependencies. They feed off and on each other, insist on their individuality yet can hardly see themselves outside of their particular and peculiar circle of trust. They believe they are open but their shared assumptions work like a glue and repellent to those whose membership presents an unspoken contingency, like Wallace’s. Of course, Wallace (Wally) is everyone’s friend, they all love Wally, and yet the distance to understanding him, to grasping the fullness of who he is and can be remains a deliberately unexplored gulf between them. The point is, Wallace knows that gulf intimately whereas his dear white friends have no idea that it exists.
When Wallace and Miller hook up we see flashes and whole storm fronts of desire, neediness, belonging and isolation pass before our eyes with uneven urgency. It has the potential for romance and so many jagged, pointy, dangerous edges that injury seems inevitable. The question is a matter of how deep the wounds will be, who will claim responsibility and whether and when healing will arrive. We do not find out if they will or can stay together. At one point the weekend is over.
Wallace as this single Black gay man who has made it from Alabama to the Midwestern citadel of research academia performs the labor of thousands sticking it out where his competency is consistently doubted, his scholarly pedigree steadily demeaned. Brandon Taylor captures this unremitting tension of the Black researcher in the white academy; of the ambitious and aspiring Black person in white American society just so:
The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse. (p.97)
On so many occasions in the novel Brandon Taylor doles out no frills truths as part and parcel of the unfolding story; through Wallace’s fully complex and multifaceted character. Wallace’s interiority becomes the primary vehicle through which such candor reaches us. When his white friends let a racist microaggression go unchallenged, he notes:
Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. (p. 162)
These are things I know and have experienced as a Black woman who knows her middle class, educated, white American people to a T. It’s still a very different thing to have someone else actually speak it, even on pages marked as fiction.
Writing is my best method for sorting my thoughts. Real Life swept me up in ways I never anticipated. Initially I thought it was Taylor’s gift for making microaggressions legible without hitting readers over the head with them; for illuminating the subtle tradeoffs we make to persist, even thrive, as a singular Black or other racialized group member in an overwhelmingly white, competitive and hierarchical environment. I felt grateful for every single sentence on those. But going a level deeper I had to recognize the windows being offered me into Black maleness and gayness that I had not previously explored or really considered. While I felt all kinds of familiarity with the white academic clique described, I had to also acknowledge the ways that Black men’s interiority has been obscured for me all my life.
My father, my brother, uncles; my nephew — the Black men I know, have known best, were hardly ones to speak openly or at length of their feelings. My mixed race bi-lingual boys who identify as Black and Austrian/American have their own stories that are distinct and plenty remains untold. My father was described as “a man of few words.” He was kind and patient and fond of my mother, his wife of 50+ years. But I didn’t understand that he was unbelievably proud of me until I had been away from home for a few years. My older brother is the relational glue in our family. He’s the one who’s got all the cousins, uncles, oldest friends in his contacts. He can call any of them at the drop of a hat and everyone is glad to hear from him. That said, we’ve rarely talked about more intimate matters like our marriages or financial worries unless there was a crisis. This matters. It’s a reality that has shaped me. It has consequences for how I interpret the world and expect from Black men in particular. It helps me explain to myself the urgency I feel to write this essay.
As if the universe could see my struggle to pull my ideas into some form of coherence, an essential essay by Darnell L. Moore arrived in my Twitter feed right on time. ‘On mourning and manhood: the burdens we Black men must carry’ talks about going beyond having feelings to actually being allowed to express and grow them past the narrow confines typically allotted to men in American society. He posits,
Maybe what it means to be human is to accept that we might touch something akin to healing only after we accept that brokenness is the entry point into transformation. Black people know that we are not the problem in need of fixing. America is.
Of Black men,
…we sometimes eat away at our own hearts and the hearts of those we love. And we sometimes remember that we deserve to live a life with hearts wide open ready to give and receive love. Like most truths, that one is hard to sit with.
I imagine Taylor’s Wallace reading those lines, making sense of them in his own way. Perhaps finding some solace and relief in them. I ask myself if I might share that same essay with my beloved Black men, those who still walk the earth with me. The ones who rarely hear from me but when we do connect it’s all heart and presence. I suppose this, too is my real life. The part that seems elusive although it runs in the family, this run-of-the-mill distance that keeps everyone safe? Black men I know and love who remain apart from me, separate; islanders to my mainland self…How do we venture to wade into that gap and see each other more clearly?
Fiction is not a domain I consider my own. I am always an uneasy visitor. As soon as I finished, Real Life, was clear about the outcome, I almost immediately went back in to locate my favorite pull quotes. I reread whole sequences discovering details I missed or didn’t know to attach any significance to. I marveled at the transitions, the magnificent scope of action contained in the story of a weekend. This is not at all my fiction reading norm. Brandon Taylor achieved something different with this reader. It’s not that I am hankering for his next novel. No, he has written that rare novel I want to know better, in detail.
Reading can change us. Changes us when we let it. Acknowledging what we don’t know might be easier than admitting what we did not see; all the ways we refused to look at a thing or things. There are always more connections than we know what to do with; than I know what to do with. I picked up a book that gave me more than I bargained for, that made me think twice and a third time about what it means to be, to belong and how we may ever calculate the long costs even as we celebrate the very unlikelihood of being happy and alive at the same time.