None of Wallace’s friends think he’s grieving correctly. Wallace, the main character in Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, lost his father just a few weeks ago — so why isn’t he crying? The promise of grief is unpredictability, and yet, Taylor says on the LGBTQ&A podcast this week, people still expect you to behave in a very specific way.
“It’s not that I wrote this book to grind an ax, but one of the axes I was happy to grind when writing this book was to sort of bust open a lot of the polite myths around things like grieving,” he says.
There’s a set of prescribed behaviors that society expects. “As a rule, it should be neat, it should be sprawling, it should be messy. Your life should be ruined, but in this really constrained way so that when I comfort you, I can feel good about comforting you. And if you deny me the pleasure of comforting you, I’m going to have a problem with it.”
Real Life shines a light on just how far people are willing to go to avoid feeling uncomfortable. Wallace is the only Black person in his friend group and grad program. His lack of whiteness is viewed as a “deficiency” in his chosen career. When this is stated overtly — no subtext needed — at a dinner party, Wallace’s friends remain silent.
Years of practice have fine-tuned our ability to ignore that which is right in front of our faces, and that which we deem as "polite society" has dictated that it is better to let these types of comments go, something each character does with ease.
“I’m certainly interested in the discomfort that comes from being the one person in that situation who’s aware of the game that everyone is playing and is the only person willing to call it out for what it is,” Taylor says. “And it’s not just the white characters who do this. Wallace finds out that he’s done this to people as well.... Everyone realizes, hopefully, by the end of the book, that we’re all doing it to each other all the time, that even when someone’s your friend, you put them in a box, and you shrink them, and you shave off all the context of their life to bring them into yours. That is an act of erasure and sometimes an act of violence.”
In the character of Wallace, who shares a great deal of Taylor’s background and biography, readers are gifted one of the most compelling and original characters in recent memory — a man built on contradictions. He’s unhappy, but what will change that? He contemplates leaving his grad program. He contemplates the relationship with a straight man in which he finds himself. He contemplates romantic relationships, in general. In Real Life, the answers aren’t easy.
Real Life, longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, is available now.
LGBTQ&A is hosted by Jeffrey Masters and produced by The Advocate magazine, in partnership with GLAAD.