Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: "The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different. We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience."
Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
Real Life bristles with everyday microaggressions, all the myriad, annihilating ways blackness is weaponised. It’s a campus novel, but anyone familiar with 19th-century slave narratives will hear the tinkle of chains in the background. Taylor has written an economical, patient and incisive examination of race relations in present-day America. Late one evening Wallace nips out to the store to buy soap and deodorant, only for a group of drunk white frat boys to take him for their drug dealer. Wallace finds a way to blame himself, reasoning that he shouldn’t have gone out so late. The violent potential of drunk white Americans is a quiet – but deafening – presence throughout the novel. Black Americans have it demonstrated to them all too often what it can mean to be present where they are not expected.
Taylor describes the surrounding scenery with sharp focus. The prose is exact and clear; Taylor has a keen sensitivity for surface detail. Indeed, surface description and the visual gaze are important features of the narrative. When Miller stares at Wallace it is described thus: “Wallace could feel the weight of his gaze.” In the scene where Wallace is humiliated at the dinner party we have this description of the white friends: “Wallace feels their gazes strike the surface of his body like pellets.”
Real Life follows Wallace as he struggles through college, acutely aware of his outsider status. Taylor writes with great lucidity about how Wallace’s race is casually kicked around in conversation among his friends and lovers. At dinner with friends one evening, Wallace’s thoughts about leaving his PhD course are met with disbelief: ‘Why would you do that? I mean, the prospects for… black people, you know?’ It is, of course, an encapsulation of how black identities are often lumped together in public discourse. In a recent interview Taylor said that his work is frequently and misleadingly compared to James Baldwin’s. In fact, Real Life is a campus novel in the tradition of Sally Rooney and Ben Lerner, and Taylor is as good as either of them – a sharp, witty and generous writer.
In Real Life, Taylor proves himself to be an effortless documenter of the domestic. It is a delight to read Taylor in full flow – his characters ricocheting off each other at a dinner party or simply when he is describing someone cooking fish in the middle of the night. Through Wallace, he has created a great tragic protagonist, a character sure to resonate with many as he makes his way through a world that was never made for him. All of this makes Real Life an essential novel from a truly exciting new writer.
What is striking about Real Life is that this is not a coming-of-age novel, as works about sexuality so often are. Taking place over just a single weekend, the characters do not change; they cannot grow. They are infuriatingly rooted to the same spot, their words, wants, mistakes and flaws circling around and around as if stuck in a fetid Petri dish. There is no happy ending, because this is real life, and it is uncomfortable.
In his quests to evade such hostilities and to “slip out of [his] own skin”, Wallace finds peace not just amid the calm of the lake but in contemplating other elements of the natural world. He “thinks again of a bird, the matter of scope, how everything below it, all the big and towering world, is both flattened and shrunken”.
These images, and their concern with perspective and distance, reveal aspects of Wallace’s characterisation that might discourage readers. Taylor is committed to precisely portraying Wallace’s inner life and lived experience as a deeply withdrawn individual, born no doubt from his history of abuse. This dedication to psychological verisimilitude involves showing that, for victims, progressing beyond trauma is not always possible. It also involves asserting that people, often and especially those closest to us, might be unknowable. These tendencies mean that, by the end of the book, the narrative often has a somewhat inert, ponderous quality, and Wallace feels curiously indistinct. Ultimately, Taylor renders Wallace always at a remove from us; a figure frustratingly out of reach.
Psychologically compelling, incisively satirical, told in a muted style that nevertheless accesses a full emotional range, this is a brilliant book, worthy of a wide audience, whether or not it makes the Booker shortlist – but I’m already crossing my fingers that it will.
Yet Taylor makes Wallace more complex than a mere victim; he can even be unsympathetic and antagonistic. And if Real Life owes its Booker nomination partly to the timeliness of its racial theme, the author’s broader accomplishment is his dissection of the contours of emotion. His prose is precise and masterly, as is his rendering of Wallace’s peer group dynamic. By turns bitter and tender, Real Life is a finely wrought addition to gay literature. More than that, Wallace’s voice brings fresh nuance and microscopic scrutiny to the Black Lives Matter debate.