He had begun to feel, this summer in particular, something he had never felt before: that he wanted something more. He was unhappy, and for the first time in his life, that unhappiness did not seem entirely necessary. Sometimes he yearned to trust this impulse, to leap out of his life and into the vast, incalculable void of the world.

Brandon Taylor’s debut novel – shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize – draws on his own experiences as a PhD candidate in biochemistry. Listen to Brandon Taylor discuss these experiences, and the novel, on NPR’s “Short Wave.”

Read more in his essay “Working In Science Was A Brutal Education. That’s Why I Left.”

Talking Points

If you’re not sure where to start a conversation in a breakout room during Book Club, find an example in the text related to one of these themes. Or, pick a passage that stood out to you and share it with the group.

  • Racialized and gendered stereotypes and expectations, and related interpersonal tensions around race, class, gender and sexuality – made explicit in several scenes between Wallace and his colleagues, most notably Katie, but also Miller and Brigit
  • Trauma, family, and personal histories – embodied and affective
  • Recurring water imagery
  • The “campus novel” as genre
  • Structural racism in higher education
  • The centrality of embodied experience in the text – both pleasure and violence, via disordered eating, stimulants, sex, violence – in contrast or counterpoint to the microscopic, sterile work in the lab
  • “Real life” as observed by Wallace throughout the book

Get Into It

New York Times

For a Scientist Turned Novelist, an Experiment Pays Off

The academic setting is one that Taylor gravitates toward as a reader […] but he rarely sees people like himself when he reads them. He hopes “Real Life” changes that. “What I wanted to do was to take this genre and this milieu that I really respond to as a reader and to sort of write myself into it,” Taylor said.

The Guardian

'I didn't write this book for the white gaze'

“There’s this way black art is talked about,” he says, “that is invisible to white people.” These loaded comments show up when Taylor is compared to James Baldwin more frequently than contemporary writers such as Sally Rooney and Rachel Cusk, who also mine the lives of messy, overeducated twentysomethings. “I’m like, what Baldwin novel is this book in conversation with?” Taylor shouts, exasperated.

Actor Paapa Essiedu performs a reading from #2020BookerPrize shortlisted author Brandon Taylor’s book, Real Life, streamed during The Booker Prize 2020 winner ceremony.

From the Office of Global Inclusion @ NYU

Related media, events or reading materials from NYU’s Office of Global Inclusion, the official Book Club Co-Sponsor

Kenji Yoshino

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights

A lyrical memoir that identifies the pressure to conform as a hidden threat to our civil rights, drawing on the author’s life as a gay Asian American man and his career as an acclaimed legal scholar.