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: MOSTLY DEAD THINGS by KRISTEN ARNETT

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41817578just a buncha Sad People being Sad and not much else

Mostly Dead Things was such a depressing book. No narrative is good without conflict; the problem with this book is that there was nothing in it but conflict. I genuinely cannot think of a single moment from this book that was even remotely close to positive—not a single scene or line or relationship that wasn’t drenched in sadness or angst or repressed feelings. Emotion is not dynamic in Arnett’s novel; it doesn’t have highs and lows. There are only lows and then even lower lows. All of this didn’t make for a particularly enjoyable, or even tolerable, reading experience. A novel doesn’t need to be happy to be good (in fact, I would argue for the opposite), but it also needs to present characters that experience emotion along a spectrum rather than a single point.

There is also the matter of the disappointing characters. The characters of Mostly Dead Things are going through a lot, I get that. But they are so unlikable. It felt like there was nothing redeemable about them (and the novel’s sad attempts at a resolution definitely didn’t move them to a point where it felt like they could redeem themselves). And to be clear, I don’t want to blame these characters for the trauma they’re going through, of which there is a lot—the main character finds her father’s dead body after he commits suicide AND the person she’s in love with abandons her and her brother—but I just felt like Arnett never tried to unpack and work through her characters’ trauma. It felt like the novel was saying here are characters in pain rather than here are characters in pain and here’s how they negotiate and understand the things they do because they are in painArnett gives us some characters and then writes a novel where all she says is, here are my characters!! That is not a novel because that is not a narrative—that’s nothing more than just a bunch of character descriptions.

Also, I don’t think I will ever like novels about taxidermy. It’s just SO painfully on the nose. Like oh the main character is like her taxidermied animals, she, too, is trying to reanimate herself even though she feels dead!! It feels gimmicky, like the novel is straining for a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have by way of this very obvious—not to mention overdone—metaphor.

Honestly, this novel was less Mostly Dead Things and more Fully Dead Things. That is to say, it had no life.

2.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: TENDER by BELINDA McKEON

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Image result for tender belinda mckeon coverMckeon’s Tender is a novel that progresses much like a bruise would: the writing, when it initially hits the page, is sharp and vibrant in its impact, filled with all the excitement of a new, all-engrossing friendship. But as the plot unfolds, the bruise of that initial impact becomes more and more apparent, blooming into increasingly worrying shades of purple and blue, the colours of something gone wrong, something that is so clearly not right happening.

“She laughed. There was a pleasure in hearing him use her name; it was so direct. It was somehow a higher level of attention than she usually got from people; almost cheekily personal. Intimate, that was what it was. And yet pulled clear of intimacy, at the last second, by the reins of irony which seemed to control everything he said, by his constant closeness to mockery. She found herself wanting more of it, and she found, too, that it held a chellenge: to edge him away from that mockery towards something warmer. To make him see that he was wrong in whatever decision he had made about her, about her silliness, about her childishness, about whatever it was he had, by now, set down for her in his mind.”

All of this is to say, McKeon is so good at depicting the gradual collapse of her protagonist, Catherine; the narrowing, over time, of Catherine’s psychological vision. The writing is honest and fluid, almost overflowing in its attempts to catch up with Catherine’s frantic thoughts. Form and content work in parallel, here, the writing becoming more fragmented and divided just as Catherine’s ever-increasing focus on her singular subject becomes more desperate.

(Trying to be vague here so as not to spoil the intrigue. 👀)

More than anything, though, what Tender does that I haven’t seen from a lot of novels is not just depict, but substantially delve into deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions: jealousy, self-pity, possessiveness, clinginess, self-loathing. All of it done, too, in the context of a friendship and a toxic, unrequited love. But McKeon builds her novel’s central dynamic, the fraught friendship between Catherine and James, with such nuance and layers that come what may, I was ready to follow these characters into whatever circumstances they happened to find themselves in. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

4.5-


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