BOOK REVIEW: REAL LIFE by BRANDON TAYLOR

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A lot of the times I’ll read literary fiction that proves unbearably irritating because it is so intent on blowing every single one of its moments out of proportion: every word of dialogue, every glance, every movement becomes imbued with monumental implications, the author somehow gleaning paragraphs and paragraphs’ worth of information out of a moment that seems, to put it simply, Not That Deep. Oftentimes this kind of attempt to make a novel brim with meaning backfires and instead makes it painfully caught up in its own forced significance. Real Life is a novel that resists all the trappings of this attempt at artificial meaning-making, a novel that in fact pays the right amount of attention to the minute.

“Off to the side, a man is eating something from a cardboard bowl. He has the sort of lean face in which the muscles of his jaws are visible as they work. Wallace watches the muscles slide and shift beneath the man’s skin, which is olive colored. There is also the thickening muscle in his neck as he swallows, the food passing down and down through his throat and into the darkness of his body. This is an ordinary act, so commonplace as to seem invisible, but when any such act is considered, there is a wild strangeness to it. Consider how the eyelid slides down over the eyeball and back, the world cast into an instant of darkness with every blink. Consider the act of breathing, which comes regularly and without effort–and yet the great surge of air that must enter and exit the body is an almost violent event, tissues pushed and compressed and slid apart and opened and closed, so much blood all over the whole business of it. Ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close.

To me, that last line is almost the thesis of the whole novel: “Ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close.” This statement takes on different inflections throughout the novel, depending on the context in which it becomes salient: relationships with friends, with romantic and/or sexual partners, with classmates, with professors and advisors. Taylor exerts such a careful control on his writing in this novel that despite their ostensible ordinariness, acts are rendered in substantial and yet not unnecessary detail; these acts matter not just (and not always) because they represent some huge, monumental thing, but also because of the fact that they are, in the end, still ordinary.

I am thinking especially of the ways in which Real Life pays attention to the pervasiveness of the microaggressions that Wallace, as a Black man, has to experience in his almost exclusively white campus. Taylor depicts an environment in which microaggressions proliferate and fester, creating a milieu that is suffocating in its insistence to let them go unchecked and indeed actively unacknowledged. Microaggressions, here, operate as a kind of act that seems ordinary to those who are not on the receiving end of them, those who were never meant to be the targets of these microaggressions to begin with.

“And there is the other thing–the shadow pain, he calls it, because he cannot say its real name. Because to say its real name would be to cause trouble, to make waves. To draw attention to it, as though it weren’t in everything already.”

Again there is this idea of a “shadow” that lies beneath what is on the surface of an interaction. If “ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close,” then microaggressions are ordinary acts whose marginalizing effects stem from them being and staying in those shadows. Microaggressions are significant precisely because they are ordinary, because they are, as Wallace says, “in everything.” They are also the acts that those who don’t experience them refuse to acknowledge. Put another way, the ordinary is important not just because it represents something bigger, in this case implicit racism, but also precisely because it is ordinary, because that implicit racism takes shape and thrives in commonplace occurrences.

And this is not to mention that all of this is coming from people who are supposed to be Wallace’s friends. Needless to say, these microaggressions (and in some cases overt racism) take their toll on Wallace, leaving him exhausted, frustrated, or else resigned to their inevitability. Taylor builds this kind of environment so intricately and precisely, laying one brick atop another until in the end you’re faced with the sheer overwhelming height of an inherently racist structure. It infuriated me on behalf of Wallace; I honestly don’t remember the last time a novel angered me this much.

I also think it’s important to underline the fact that Wallace is more than the marginalization he faces; things don’t just happen to him. He’s a fascinating, instropective, relatable and yet oftentimes entirely elusive character. He’s always so alert to his world, attuned to the lines of connection (or tension) that thrum within his friend group.

I have so much else to say, but I’m going to stop here, as I think I’ve written plenty already. That being said, Real Life is a novel that explores so many more topics with tact and insight: sexual abuse, trauma, sex, grad school–I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here. More broadly, it’s a novel that intricately and deftly examines the textures of relationships and interactions, the ways in which they often operate as a push and pull. I loved this one so much.

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BOOK REVIEW: SHOW THEM A GOOD TIME by NICOLE FLATTERY

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Wry, absurd, and almost casually poignant—Nicole Flattery’s writing feels like a genre of its own.

Almost as soon as you start this book, you can tell that you’re reading something different; it’s the kind of book that makes you tilt your head to side. Whatever direction you expect these stories to go in, they go in the opposite direction. Flattery approaches her subject matter—women experiencing turmoil of some kind, whether it be physical abuse, emotional abuse, bereavement, abortion—obliquely, giving you just enough to understand that her characters have all of this lurking in their inner lives, but not enough for you to fully understand the extent of its impact on them. There is so much implied meaning in these stories; you’re given the tip of the iceberg and expected to infer the size of the structure that lies beneath it. And this style of writing is really the perfect strategy for a short story: it gives you enough information to feel like you know something substantial about these characters, but not so much that they’re rendered transparent or caricatured.

“I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. I withheld the fact that there wasn’t much to discover. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.”

“In that brief moment everyone saw my mind and my mind was absent of all ideas. I thought I would be a different person by this time in my life, but I was actually becoming less like someone else and more like myself. It was troubling.”

Though these stories deal with serious subject matter, they also don’t take themselves too seriously. Flattery doesn’t strictly rely on a sense of realism in her narratives, but instead goes in slightly absurd, off-kilter directions. The stories in this collection are told with a wry, deadpan sense of humour, one that buoys them and prevents them from getting bogged down in melodramatic territory. Though Show Them a Good Time is sometimes facetious in dealing with subject matter you would maybe expect it to take seriously, it’s also not flippant and invests in moments that matter to its characters.

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Show Them a Good Time is a collection that is exactly as its title promises. It gets at both the weird, funny spectacle of performance, but also the pressure to perform, to show them a good time when you are decidedly not having a good time. It’s about how performance in the everyday can at times be artistic expression and at others voyeuristic and exploitative.

Thank you so much to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

PS: I highly recommend checking out the Stinging Fly Podcast’s episode on Nicole Flattery where they read and discuss the first and titular short story of this collection, “Show Them a Good Time.”

PPS: my favourite short stories were “Show Them a Good Time,” “Abortion, a Love Story,” and “Not the End Yet.”


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BOOK REVIEW: SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by JANE AUSTEN

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Sense and Sensibility is not, I think, a novel that is especially lovable. Not to say that there’s nothing in it to love—rather, that it’s not a novel that is easy to love. It’s not as “sparkling” as Austen’s other works—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey—but is a decidedly dimmer story, filled with compromises and serious hardship and some very close, if not actual, brushes with tragedy. It’s not easy to reconcile yourself to a lot of what happens in this narrative: to (spoilers!) Marianne marrying Colonel Brandon, to what Willoughby does to Marianne, to how he redeems, but also not quite redeems, himself. This is a novel wherein so much is about what could’ve been but wasn’t; it’s one wherein the tinge of those could’ve beens prevents you from gleaning a real contentedness with the book’s ending.

But “easy” is not tantamount to “good.” Just because S&S isn’t perhaps as easily digestible as Austen’s other novels doesn’t mean that it’s not any less worthy as a story. As much as I have qualified my enjoyment of this novel—I definitely didn’t unabashedly love it as much as Pride and Prejudice or Emma—I still absolutely found it to be an especially compelling and nuanced character study. It is an Austen novel, after all, with no shortage of substantial, thought-provoking ideas: discussions, of course, of sense and sensibility and what place they have in polite society, but also of propriety, of emotion as a means of communication, of commitment and duty. But more than just providing a fodder for discussion, Austen renders her characters sensitively and sympathetically—that is to say, her novel is not just intellectually, but also emotionally, potent. I was genuinely affected by these characters’ stories, by Elinor and Marianne’s, yes, but also Willougby and Colonel Brandon’s.

S&S is not my favourite of Austen’s novels, but that’s not really saying much. Austen has set the bar so high for herself that saying one of her novels isn’t my favourite isn’t exactly helpful. For me, when it comes to the quality of Austen’s novels, the question is not if they are good, or how good they are, but rather what kind of good they offer. Of course you have your Pride and Prejudices and Northanger Abbeys, the ones you go back to to laugh and delight in their characters’ ridiculousness. But you also have your Sense and Sensibilitys, the ones you perhaps return to to once again acutely feel their characters’ struggles, to see those characters slowly and complicatedly try to unravel the strands of those struggles.

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