There is a strain of Black campus novel that is obsessed with “realness.” I can trace its origins to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the narrator leads his college’s white trustee on a darkly comic and ill-fated tour of the Black homes, brothel, and mental hospital full of Black patients that lie just outside his historically Black college’s campus. Ellison does not necessarily posit these grotesqueries as any “realer” than the Black university professor who expels the narrator and undermines his trip to New York; but, rather, the tension rests on the danger of the white trustee assuming that the degradation he saw is Black people’s true nature—untouched by white oppression and unredeemable by education.
This white obsession with “real” Blackness in the academy became a central concern of Black-campus literature in the 1990s and 2000s. I am thinking of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, in which various biracial characters, born to the life and world of academia, ascribe to a Black-male, low-income character an authenticity that they themselves are certain they are lacking. I am thinking also of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s fatally miserable and unintentionally hilarious misread of Black culture at Howard University. There are a few notable exceptions to this obsession. The author and filmmaker Kathleen Collins’s rediscovered 1982 film Losing Ground is an exploration of the intellectual life and romantic sensibilities of a Black academic that is blissfully unconcerned with whether or not the people on screen are “real” Black people. But in the louder drumbeat of popular culture, there was a false belief in midnineties and early 2000s literature that Blackness, once it entered the academy, was no longer “real.” And that Black people, once they entered the academy, either as students or faculty, were suddenly robbed of Blackness, left to float in some unmoored space, as if divested of a superpower—Superman confronted by kryptonite or Dr. Manhattan encased in a lithium cage.
This reading is of course wildly anti-Black. It rests on the assumption that Blackness and studied, intentional intelligence are mutually incompatible. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her own campus novel Americanah, slyly suggests as much when her protagonist, Ifemelu, while drifting in and out of college campuses in Nigeria and the United States, begins to catalog what does and does not constitute Blackness and who—among the white and Black Americans and Black Nigerians—reacts differently to that classification.
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is both a break from this tired obsession with “realness” and a meditation on what it might mean in a fuller sense, outside of a reductive understanding. It is less a novel steeped in the subconscious anti-Blackness of highbrow art and realist literature and more one in conversation with questions of personhood and social death. The novel follows the life of Wallace, a Black, gay chemist from Alabama, toiling away in the academy on an overwhelmingly white campus in a small midwestern town. It is perhaps one of the finest Afropessimist pieces of art, if we are allowing pieces of art to be made in this tradition. I may be applying this label too broadly, but if we are to talk about a work that explicitly outlines the themes of Afropessimism, then I would place Real Life as one of the foremost, alongside more established examples such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Writing on Frank Wilderson’s work in the New Yorker earlier this summer, Vinson Cunningham described Afropessimism thusly:
Afropessimism sketches a structural map of human experience. On this map, Black people are integral to human society but at all times and in all places excluded from it. They are in a state of “social death,” a concept that Wilderson borrows from the sociologist Orlando Patterson. For Patterson, social death describes the experience of slavery as it has appeared across time and space—a slave is not merely an exploited person but someone robbed of his or her personhood. For Wilderson, the state of slavery, for Black people, is permanent: every Black person is always a slave and, therefore, a perpetual corpse, buried beneath the world and stinking it up. “Blackness is coterminous with slaveness,” Wilderson writes. And civil society as we know it requires this category of nonperson to exist. Emancipation is a myth.
Cunningham observes Wilderson’s contention that “the narrative arc of the slave who is Black…is not an arc at all, but a flat line.”
The narrative arc of Real Life is the rhythm of a night and day in Wallace’s life at the university. The novel is remarkable in describing what social death feels like, the experience of it in a contemporary context. In their definition of social death, the authors of Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction note:
The slave, as an object, is socially dead, which means they are: 1) open to gratuitous violence, as opposed to violence contingent upon some transgression or crime; 2) natally alienated, their ties of birth not recognized and familial structures intentionally broken apart; and 3) generally dishonored, or disgraced before any thought or action is considered.
When we meet Wallace, his father has died weeks earlier but he has only that evening told his colleagues. He did not wish to tell them sooner, because “the trouble with these people, with his friends, with the world, was that they thought things had to be a certain way with family. They thought you had to feel something for them, and it had to be the same thing that everyone felt or else you were doing it wrong.” Wallace’s family ties are broken—not necessarily because of an overt white violence, but rather the violence of sexual abuse. We learn later that he was molested as a child by a family friend, a man his parents allowed to sleep on the couch when he was down on his luck.
Wallace’s memories of his childhood home are fleeting, at first. He remembers the sound of the electric fan he used to drown out the noise of his family “because its regular rhythm made something about his life easier.” It is under the burr of the fan that Wallace “worked on math and science homework…getting better and better at it until he was the best student in the whole state of Alabama.” “It wasn’t the world outside that he had needed to drown out,” the narrator clarifies of Wallace, “but the world inside, the interior of the house, which had always seemed so much wilder and stranger to him than anything he found walking alone in the woods.” Wallace, speaking of his father, tells his friend and soon-to-be lover, the ostensibly straight, white boy Miller, “We didn’t even really know each other.” Miller responds, “Your parents aren’t people until they’re suffering. They aren’t people until they’re gone.” This, of course, is a realness ascribed to one who is already a person underneath the social construct, whose suffering and pain are legible to the wider world. What does this mean for Wallace and his father? Such a transformation into “realness” that eludes Wallace about his father underlines the conditional here.
Wallace is subject to gratuitous and random violence twice—once in absentia, when someone kills the nematodes in his experiment. And then later, when Wallace’s lab mate Dana, the alleged culprit and a white woman, accuses him of suspecting her. Through recall, we learn that Dana has resented Wallace ever since he sought to correct a mistake in one of her experiments. Defensive, Dana blamed her failure on Wallace, reinforcing among his colleagues an identity for him as the slow one—the one who can’t be trusted in the lab, as the only Black member. Certain that Wallace thinks she ruined his experiment for revenge, Dana calls him a misogynist, yelling: “I have to prove myself because you and men like you are always counting me out. Well, fuck it, women are the new niggers, the new faggots.”
The moment is shocking and absurd. It is the kind of moment that often happens if you are the sole Black person in a predominantly white environment, but one that is never believed when you attempt to explain it to others. Would a white woman really behave so cartoonishly? Like a villain? Aren’t white people educated, moneyed, literate—aren’t good white people more human than that? Despite half a millennium of evidence to the contrary, these are often the questions posed about incidents like this and so the sharpness of it, the breathtaking cruelty that comes from nowhere, makes it read as true. Wallace explains that “the most unfair part of it…is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.” Earlier, recalling Dana, he had noted, “People can be unpredictable in their cruelty…. There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”
The final condition of social death is being “generally dishonored or betrayed before any thought is given.” Instances of this abound, from Wallace mentioning in passing “I hate it here” only to look up, surprised, that any of his friends had even heard him: “The words fell out of him like the exhalation of some hot, dense space inside him, and when he was done talking, he looked up, thinking that no one had really been paying attention. That’s how it was. He talked and people drifted in and out of concentration.”
Sociologist Orlando Patterson’s theory of social death includes the notion of the slave as commodity:
The slave is objectified in such a way that they are legally made an object (a commodity) to be used and exchanged. It is not just their labor-power that is commodified—as with the worker—but their very being. As such, they are not recognized as a social subject and are thus precluded from the category of ‘human’—inclusion in humanity being predicated on social recognition, volition, subjecthood, and the valuation of life.
Throughout the novel, Wallace repeatedly returns to his workbench, to the painstaking labor of dissecting and resurrecting his violated nematodes. Wallace’s commodification becomes clear in these descriptions, his social death as slave. “None of this is fair. None of this is good, he knows. But he also knows that the point is not fairness. The point is not to be treated fairly or well. The point is to get your work done.”
And there is the other thing—the shadow pain, he calls it, because he cannot say its real name. …He tried once, with Simone [his advisor]. …And Simone said, Wallace. Don’t be dramatic. It isn’t racism. You just need to catch up. Work harder.
You need to get better. She spoke as though she were bestowing blessings…She spoke as though she were saving him. What could he say? What could he do?
Nothing. Except to work.
He works only so that he might get by in life on whatever he can muster. None of it will save him, he sees now. None of it can save him.
Such a state of social death means that Wallace is continually divorced from his own body. But Taylor is a gifted novelist, so it is not solely Wallace’s Blackness that separates him from his body; it is Wallace’s Blackness and body trauma, and it is Wallace’s Blackness and social identity as a working-class gay man in an academic setting. All of this at once leaves Wallace outside of his body and almost dead within it.
Wallace’s dissociation is broken only at a few key moments in the novel. And sometimes they are moments of intense disgust. After sex with Miller, after taking the emotional risk of telling this man about his father, Wallace drinks a glass of water. And then another. And then another. And then another. Until he has forced himself to vomit. Later we learn that early in his academic career, to stay competitive, Wallace became increasingly reliant on caffeine, yet was only able to recognize his predicament when he accidentally stabbed himself in the thigh with a scalpel because his hands shook so much.
The only pleasurable interruption of Wallace’s dissociation is during sex with Miller. Or rather not necessarily sex, but kissing. There is a moment early in the novel when a straight woman-friend of Wallace’s kisses him. When Miller sees this, it prompts him eventually to kiss Wallace himself. The narrator notes that it is only the second time Wallace has been kissed, though we later learn that Wallace “couldn’t remember the last time he had lain with someone this way, in that nearly innocent configuration that comes before sex when both parties pretend to want everything other than that,” which suggests a romantic life with sexual contact but without the intimacy of kissing. That intimacy is what finally allows Wallace to be in his body. And later, the intimacy of sex—“Miller lay on top of him and drew the blanket over their bodies, and Wallace, for the first time in a long time, let someone inside him. It hurt at first, like it always did, but that pain and the joy of his body remembering its keenest pleasure was enough to get him hard again, and through it.” By the end of the second section, this intimacy, this not-quite doubling, is recalled as Miller watches Wallace walk to the tennis court, from a second-story window. Wallace “can feel Miller getting farther and farther away, higher above him. There will come a moment when he passes directly beneath Miller’s sight line, when they will be the closest that they possibly can be, and to someone looking from even higher up, they will appear identical, one laid over the other.” But, as the narrator points out, “there is a difference between entering someone, being in someone, and being with that person. There is an impossibility to the idea of simultaneously existing within them and beside them.”
Sex does not necessarily remedy Wallace’s social death. But sex is remarkable as a space that exists within and outside of social death. It is through sex that Wallace’s consciousness, that prickly, surging place the reader has inhabited so fully for much of the novel, becomes a living, breathing thing, not merely a reaction to external stimuli. In one of the few scenes where Wallace takes a stab at being the aggressor, laying aside the mask of acquiescence, he proudly remarks that he is now “a person who kisses,” and kneels above Miller in an abandoned booth. “‘What are you doing?’ Miller asks, the edge of concern… Wallace almost laughs. Almost says, Exercising agency. Almost says, Let me tell you a story.” It is in the almost, the space between the intimacy of a joke about consciousness and the intimacy of a kiss, that Wallace begins to feel real, at least (and most importantly) to himself. All this before he leans in for a kiss.