Book Review: Queer Eros, Class, Race and Nematodes in Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life
The Dark Academia Aesthetic of Class Mobility
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Plagues require equipment on multiple scales—proteonomics, scalpels, stethescopes, sewage systems. In any given infectious disease department meeting, we find the motley denizens who weild them: the pale lab dwellers clumped together, harried physicians barking hospital orders in hallway phones, and sun-bronzed field researchers returned from trapping mosquitos in São Paulo.
The students though are pluripotent—undifferentiated, more similar to each other. Medical and graduate student eyes glitter brighter, lit by youth, caffeine, neural networks in overdrive, and perhaps actual tears. The brightness is paired with the morose ashenness of overwork, uncertainty, a weariness of constant surveillance and displacement: Californians in the shock of New England winter, Midwesterners cramped in the tiny halls of coastal cities, baffled by the lack of in-unit laundry.
The campus novel is set in this kind of place – boarding schools, colleges, graduate departments—with jostling densities of students and faculty far from home, arranged in niche formal pecking orders, subject to highly specific social mores. “A true campus novel,” writes Emily Temple, “has a sense of enclosure, almost like a locked room mystery or an off-world fantasy; campuses develop their own systems, hierarchies, and mythologies that are distinct from the world at large.” The campus is a perfect setting for the bildungsroman, and the künstlerroman–the making of the artist.
Rarely does the form grapple with the making of the scientist. Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith is the prototype, and Brandon Taylor’s debut novel rises to it. Published in 2020 by Riverhead Books, the cheekily titled Real Life introduces us to the young scientist Wallace, in his fourth-year of a biochemistry PhD. We find him deep into a summer of dissecting microscopic nematodes in an unnamed campus by a Great Lake.
Science Academia vibes from the Aesthetic Wiki
He is accompanied by a tight cast of student characters, bound by proximity and shared struggle. The cast is physically constrained within a walkable perimeter of their labs, student homes, and the lakeshore. There is also temporal enclosure: the novel unfolds over a single weekend. Within that space-time, we are mired in even more layers of Wallace’s dense isolation—he is a Black gay man self-uprooted from rural Alabama, amid mostly homogenous white middle class peers in the Midwest, in the hot-house of competitive scientific training, contending with a lab specimen catastrophe, an unexpected affair with a straight friend, and the ambivalent grief of his father’s recent death.
Within the confined dish of the campus, the teaming sex, grief, friendships, racism, class alienation, and ambition are a rich agar for Taylor’s deft narrative cultivation. It is arranged in a delicious propulsion of sex, drama, and dinner party intrigue necessary for the audio accompaniment to a sweltering summer road trip through the cornfields (as I was, from St. Louis to Des Moines).
Midwestern gothic, photo by: Tara Reeves
The narrative unspools in scenes rendered in visceral prose, engaging all five usual senses and then some: clinking laboratory equipment, salty droplets of a lover’s sweat, propriocepting the lake-shore throngs and sliding fried fish hot out of the pan down the gullet. On stepping into the lake’s algae: “There was something slick in the water, something apart from the water itself, like a loose second skin swirling around under the surface” Taylor composes the synesthesia of language into something alive, squirming, and a little ominous.
The thick viscosity of sensual prose effectively sets off the close social observations of friends, frenemies and lovers, rendering them as alive and murky as the algae. Metaphors are grounded directly in Earth itself, with its animals, electrical storms, brambles and dirt. “Cole is one of those fat fish that circle near the underside of a vast plain of ice in winter,” Wallace notes while counseling his friend through relationship drama, “showing their scales through the dull frost, the whites of their bellies. He is as native to solemnity as Wallace is to decisive action. “
Sometimes I am reminded of Otessa Moshfegh’s “brutiful” prose, though with far less excrement. Instead, there is more sensuality, tenderness, and entendres. The ugliness, the violence, the death are woven with the erotic, the sacred, and the funny. Linking the senses and natural world to stories of childhood trauma or befuddled romance places human life in the rhythm of the seasons. “Wallace couldn't remember the last time he had lain with someone this way, in that nearly innocent configuration that comes before sex when both parties pretend to want everything other than that, letting their bodies wind up to the point of unbearable tension. He reached for Miller first, his hand against Miller's chest to feel the rhythm of his heart, its fast, hard beat.”
Grunge laboratory, unknown photographer
Taylor’s novel is compellingly scientific—a systematic observation of phenomenon (the weather, feelings, human interaction), the data then cleanly rendered into a devastating novel of manners. A novel of manners is fundamentally about class, race, and the borders of inclusion. This portrayal far transcends the clichés of Internet Discourse. Instead, we feel with Wallace the lived, daily, bodily anxiety of navigating treacherous ground. The arriviste’s unease is often central in the campus novel, given the rarified elite access of the setting. But the volume setting varies - Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen hints at it, Sally Rooney’s Connell may declare it. With Taylor’s Wallace, we feel the sharp corners of “liberal” racism and class presumption press into our flesh at every student potluck, lab-mate negotiation, and meeting with the PI. A comedy of manners is fundamentally the excruciating question of belonging—Wallace’s deep human desire for it and the grinding ambivalence of whether he really needs this shit.
Wallace, though, is not only running towards, he is running away. Like Rooney’s Marianne, ambition draws Wallace forward, but the ghosts of a previous life chase after him. Real Life taps into the campus novel’s seduction of reinvention: “It's classic me, I came to college and got pretty.”
In America, you can escape a lot of things with class and money. Higher education, much more than provincial early education, immerses us in the mores of (usually white) middle- and upper-class America. Making friends in this realm is a reliable portal of class entry, declares an economic study in Nature. Elite education has been sold, like the Frontier and American mythos itself, as a mechanism by which to escape our past while being consumed in some impossible romantic labor of the sublime. Perhaps we may even get pretty. Sure, via personal development, but primarily in the very material way that the protective campus—the alma mater, the generous mother—puts distance, in miles, from chaotic homes and the ghosts of violence. The pandemic of course, illustrated how fragile this path. Wallace is explicit that science is his escape hatch from the South. Of course, so often our novel’s hero finds on arrival not only a different kind of danger, but also that it is not so easy to escape the past.
“The dark academic aesthetic celebrates the world of elite colleges in particular, imbuing them with an almost glamorous sense of danger…that dismantle the very fantasies about prestigious education the aesthetic thrives on, creating a tension between colleges as ennobling institutions vs. sites of tragedy, literal and ideological violence…our collective dream of education haunted by the specter of debt” From
Wallace’s alienation also reveals the inevitable, sorrowful distance that this striving puts between himself and the people he comes from, an anguished displacement no matter how deliberate. “You have to let it go if you're going to keep moving,” Wallace tells us, “The past is greedy, always swallowing you up, always taking. If you don't hold it back, if you don't dam it up, it will spread and take and drown.” Wallace does not hide his disdain for the non-intellectual masses that he is damming up, the people who “seem rough and ugly when they look at him, all bloated faces and missing teeth…These are not people who spend their lives contemplating the minute shifts in their fortunes; they are like the happy, well-fed fish that grow in fisheries, hatched and grown to adulthood in tiny, controlled spaces. And then farmed for food.”
There is a price of course, for contemplating the minute shifts of one’s fortune in the open sea. In one of the more poignant scenes in the book, Wallace remembers preparing Swedish meatballs for a potluck, made from scratch in the meticulous way his aunties had, tangled in warm memories of family get togethers. On arrival, a vegan in the doorway recoils from his meatballs. At the end of the night, Wallace packs up his uneaten meatballs from the remnant vegetarian fare. “Since that time, Wallace has been careful to avoid bringing meat to these things,” he notes with charming venomous melancholy, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time, all that cellulose from their vegetables.”
Dr. Percy Julian, chemist who extracted and synthesized numerous compounds critical in medical treatment, including physostigmine for glaucoma and cortisone.
Wallace, for all his woes, is no abstract victim; he is also substantial, an idiosyncratic, imperfect neurotic. The flipside of his painful self-awareness is his self-absorption, sabotage of intimacy, the harsh judgement of himself and others. When his lab friend reveals her experience of racism or his friend-lover reveals his own class displacement, we are confronted both by Wallace’s multiple intersecting isolations, as well as his lack of curiosity about the interior lives of others. Wallace appears to struggle to figure out if this is adaptive to survival or keeping him from the connections that will help him flourish.
There is also joy in this path. Wallace waxes poetically about his hard-won technical mastery in microscopic dissection, protein isolation, florescent staining. He captures the specific intimacies of graduate school, such as with his mentor Henrik, a postdoc who took him under the wing during a low point. He portrays Henrik’s tender care work as the intimacy of an older brother or coach, gently drawing him out while also strengthening him, pushing Wallace to do more he thought possible. It is a reminder of the fundamentally medieval apprenticeship at the heart of academia. Even on an industrial scale, science relies on this affectionate monastic tutelage to buffers the chaos. This mentorship is supposed to be systematic for all who enter, but in reality, shows up haphazardly. Even if it does show up, it can easily be whisked away, as when Henrik leaves for a faculty job. Without Henrik, there is one less friendly comrade to face the hostile forces. By the end of the book, we are left uncertain whether Wallace will stay on.
Section of female Nippostrongylus brasiliensis (nematode) with eggs, photo by J. Clair Hoving, Image of Distinction, Nikon 2009 Photomicorgraphy Competition
The culture of graduate education in America is often smugly proud of its brutality, of hazing thinly passed off as “rigor” and weeding out of the “unworthy:” do you belong, really? It is all the more cruel and stupid once a student recognizes the game is rigged, in ways designed to hide the rigging. Science and art are indeed hard, requiring arduous long hours and close apprenticeship to achieve mastery. But this path to which we subject our future scientists and story tellers—the ones that will build a future through pandemics and climate disaster—is one of winner-take-all precarity. A failed experiment is not just a necessary part of studying the unknown, but threatens funding, a timely post-doc and a salary, however meager, that keeps the wolf from the door and the health insurance continuous.
Wallace has come so far, worked so hard, is clearly so adept at the survivalist careerism necessary to persist. In virtue of his not-belonging, however, of not looking like a scientist (white), he will be far more scrutinized. His presence is contingent, and his accrued gold stars cannot outweigh enough this not-whiteness required to belong. He is in ferocious competition with others who will always be given far more grace than he will receive, who will make mistakes and not only be forgiven, but engage in insane dramas of victimization, unchecked. Of his lab adversary: “She hates him because he works, but he works only so that people might not hate him and might not rescind his place in the world. He works only so that he might get by in life on whatever he can muster. None of it will save him, he sees now. None of it can save him.”
It is an artful indictment of the meritocracy myth in STEM fields and the entire cosmetic DEI industrial complex. Brandon Taylor the author, in his parallel life, left his 4rth year into a biochemistry PhD. He was not retained. He instead joined another graduate program, the stratospherically elite Iowa Writer’s Workshop, publishing multiple books, nabbing critical raves, accolades no less than the Booker Prize shortlist, and a film development by Kid Cudi. If Taylor remained in science, he would presumably have applied this prodigious talent into a brilliant biochemistry career. It is the field’s loss. But it is literature’s gain and perhaps Taylor’s as well.
Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 1950s, from the NYT: “creative-writing programs during the postwar period…[were] to discourage the abstract theorizing and systematic social critiques to which the radical literature of the 1930s had been prone, in favor of a focus on the personal, the concrete and the individual”
Of course, there is no actual escape, as the world of elite literature is also situated in the same White supremacist, misogynist, homophobic, perhaps even more acutely winner-take-all Hunger Games of post-empire late capitalism [insert rest of Discourse here]. Taylor is acutely aware of the rigging for Black writers. With harsh clarity, he wrote in an essay about his skepticism over his agent’s enthusiasm, “You fear that it is that thing white people do when they read black people’s work, that they do not engage with the craft. That they only see a novel about black isolation and black loneliness, and nothing else. You worry that what she sees is not a novel at all but a series of diversity statements. You fear that you will become one of those writers who makes art that makes white people just uncomfortable enough to say that they felt something.”
This book gorgeously weaves so many complex strands so tightly—the simultaneous indignities and sanctuary of grad school, the metabolism of childhood violence, the elusive omnipresence of grief that veers from rote cultural narratives, and the overlapping tenderness and savagery of sex, all shot through with the tendrils of navigating racism, classism, queerness in a heteronormative culture, and finding one’s artistic voice. Taylor is so perceptive and masterful in rendering all of this into something so multifaceted, imperfect and true.
Was deeply moved by Zoe Tuck’s Notes on Female Visionary Poetry: Trans Women Writing Themselves into Existence: “what I wrote were prayers, spells, keys, invocations to the next chapter of my life.” Writing is literal magic.
My infectious disease-science fiction friend Jason Burnham has inspired me to aim for the sheer muscular accrual of rejection, so I’m shooting for 50 by the end of the year. I am at 3, wish me luck
I am organizing my life around cycles of the moon and the earthly arrivals of ALC book reviews, most recently of Otessa Moshfegh, who also, fascinatingly, has a Depop storefront. You can purchase vintage lockets, within which the acclaimed author will include “little blessing affirmation message from me inside which you are free to toss.”
I am working on a piece that includes all the gorgeous recommendations i received when i wailed in despair that i have forgotten how to dress myself (and must bypass the resurgence of the Y2K fashion era most closely associated with my adolescent self loathing). Will include my friend’s Full Circle Wool’s luscious organic cotton line, indie Nooworks for your lobster- and outer-space-theme needs, and Found by the Pound in St. Louis