One of my current goals is to read all of the novels on the 2020 Booker Prize Shortlist. It’s not so much of a goal as a means of letting other people pick books for me to read. I also don’t want to write reviews (I hate writing reviews) so much as use the books as a starting point for conversations. Which brings us to the first title on the list that I’ve read, Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
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There were a number of reviews that said this book was boring. I have this nasty habit of looking at reviews on Amazon before I download a book. Specifically, I look at the one-star reviews. It’s a Tolstoy / Anna Karenina thing for me. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Five-star reviews all tend to rave about the same thing. Unless the content of a book is political, or deals with politicized themes, one-star reviews are typically more varied. Every unhappy review is unhappy in its own way. These are often stupid, and mildly entertaining, ways.
Not this book, though. There is a consensus at the bottom that this Book Prize shortlisted novel is dull.
The main character is a scientist. Early on, there is a long description of a research project gone horribly awry. Not in a dramatic, explosion-filled way. His slides got contaminated. There’s a detailed rundown of his project, and the work that will need to be re-done since mold got introduced and ruined his samples. I thought it was interesting and well-written. I can see, though, where some readers were waiting for the next story beat, or some sudden twist or leap into action.
Thus is the nature of literary fiction. It’s often about moments, rather than plot. The formula is to defy formula.
Reading is About Empathy
I think that one-star reviews say more about the reviewer than the book. In an echo-chamber society built be social media, people get mad when the content being served to them doesn’t validate their world view. They get bored when the pacing of the book doesn’t follow the formula of a Hollywood movie or a bingeable season of a streaming series.
In addition to being a scientist the lead character, Wallace, is gay. There are sex scenes. Here’s the politicized theme. “Boring” is clearly a cowardly way of saying it’s not worth reading, without revealing one’s prejudices. Wallace is also Black, and that affects the relationships he has with his friends. One of the things reading does is help us develop empathy. We are able to experience the lives of people unlike ourselves. I am not a gay, Black scientist, but I could still connect with Wallace’s social awkwardness and his loneliness, and how those do battle with his desire to fit in.
Is Real Life a book that’s impossible to put down? No. Even well-written literary fiction is rarely a gripping page-turner. But it’s a book that’s easy to pick up again, and not hard to get back into. It was compelling enough that I was thinking about it in between reading sessions. I looked forward being able to read more. Now that I’ve finished the book, Brandon Taylor’s first novel, I look forward to whatever he writes next.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
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