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.