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.
I’ve been putting this review off for a long time because I was convinced that if I sat on it long enough I’d come up with some brilliant, insightful words worthy of this book. The reality is that after weeks and weeks, I’m still resorting to jazz hands, clapping, fist pumping, and shoving it in people’s faces. I am incapable of taming it down. So let’s see how this goes. . .
I think it’s important to note that I’m reviewing this book from the perspective of a straight, white, CIS woman. I had initially checked the book out from the library because it was making the rounds on Bookstagram and readers were raving about it. I ended up purchasing my own copy after a handful of chapters because I had so many pages tabbed, I knew I needed to mark it up.
I think the best way to describe my reaction to this book is like this: I was simultaneously desperate to binge it because I wanted to know how Wallace’s story was going to play out, and avoiding it like the plague because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Wallace. His story broke my heart, yet also filled me with hope. And no, I don’t want to go into detail on that because it’ll lead to spoilers. I just really need you to read this book.
This is easily one of the best books I’ll read all year. I keep telling people it’s “top 5” material, but the reality is that I don’t think anything is going to topple it from the top spot. I finished the book last month, and I still think about Wallace every single day; Taylor so masterfully deposited me straight into the center of Wallace’s self.
Cruelty, Wallace thinks, is really just the conduit of pain. It conveys pain from one place to another – from the place of highest concentration to the place of lowest concentration, in the same way heat flows. It is a delivery system, as in the way that certain viruses convey illness, disease, irreparable harm. They’re all infected with pain, hurting each other. (p. 293)
There are a lot of smart, eloquent reviews out there for this book, including those by own voices readers. I highly recommend seeking them out for a much more in-depth look at Real Life. Also? Read this book.