Real Life

Wallace is a Black, queer student attending a Midwestern university. He’s “at odds” with everything in his life: his (vastly) White peers, and his friends. Wallace hasn’t escaped the trauma of his youth; he’s gone straight from Alabama to college. Here, he’s singled out because he’s Black, because he’s not straight, and because he’s made himself distant with everyone around him, for personal reasons. But, over a weekend, this changes. Wallace must confront his trauma and becomes an individual among his friends (as well as telling some of them what he really thinks). This is a novel “of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost” (from the dust jacket).

The Beginning: A Weekend

This is the kind of novel I want to write someday, something that happens over a short period of time and looks at something specific, like the relationship between two or more people. I’ve liked introspective narratives like this, as well as broader, more encompassing novels. I usually tend to go for more serious novels, although I don’t mind books with a good sense of humor.

Real Life is a more serious, introspective book, looking at how you can try to change your future–especially when you can’t change your past.

Real Life takes place over the course of a weekend, starting on a Friday and ending on a Monday. It follows Wallace, a graduate student, as he works on his project with nematodes, as well as his time spent with Miller and his other White friends. The novel begins on an evening where Wallace decides that he’ll go to the pier with his White friends after all, weeks after his dad has died. During this encounter, he visits with his friends, and is propositioned by his friend Miller–a straight White guy–to sleep with him. This creates a unique bond between the two of them, formulating something that’s more than a hookup, but not quite a full-fledged relationship.

What Defines Us

The novel jumps back and forth in time a bit, letting narrative flashbacks show us who Miller and Wallace choose to disclose to one another. Miller discloses a story about a time when he took his anger out on another kid for no reason; Wallace tells about his life before he came to the vastly White college, how he experienced his sexuality, how he discovered wanting as a gay man, and wrestling with it. He ends his story with a conclusion about how he can’t outrun or outlive his past:

There comes a time when you have to stop being who you were, when you have to let the past stay where it is, frozen and impossible. You have to let it go if you’re going to keep moving, if you’re going to survive, because the past doesn’t need a future. It has no use for what comes next. The past is greedy, always, if you don’t dam it up, it will spread and take and drown. The past is not a receding horizon. Rather, it advances one moment at a time, marching steadily forward until it has claimed everything and we become again who we were; we become ghosts when the past catches us. I can’t live as long as my past does. It’s one or the other.

Real Life, pg. 203

For Wallace, his past will continue to define and challenge him. For Miller, his past reveals the darkness that he possesses. I personally found Miller’s story to be quite disturbing, a true revealing of his character. At first, I thought that Miller seemed like an okay person, but his narrative seemed to cast a shadow on his personality. Wallace’s narrative showed me that he’s in a constant battle with his life before he came to campus.

Final Thoughts

For me, this novel reveals to me your inner character, someone you thought was one was proves to be a completely different person on the inside. When you’re alone, that person feels like they can reveal the darkness, the struggle within themself. It’s a sense of trust, and also a sense of proving to yourself that you’re not the same person you used to be. Your actions have consequences, at least emotionally, in Miller’s case. (His narrative seemed to also underlying his White privilege.)

There’s an interesting section where Wallace talks about his sexuality in terms of choosing the devil over God:

I wanted what I wanted, but I wanted not to want what I wanted. I didn’t know much about God and the devil except what you shouldn’t do to invite one or the other, but I knew that I wanted to be full of one, and if it couldn’t be the one I wanted, then I would take the other. That if God wanted nothing to do with me, then I’d take the devil. I’d take him on my knees where I’d taken the men, let him pull me down in a bed of kudzu and fuck me, so long as I wasn’t empty anymore. I’d keep a tiny God inside me, and one day I might lie down and let the ants take me.

Real Life, pgs. 202-203.

This section shows me that Wallace is still struggling with his sexuality. He wants men, but he still struggles with whether it’s good or bad. His past self hadn’t figured that out, and his present self seems determined to choose the devil over God because he wants what he wants and doesn’t want to feel empty anymore. He doesn’t want to live with the stigma that it’s bad to be gay. Wallace just wants to feel whole again.

What did you think of Real Life? (Did you like it, disagree with it, etc.)

Thanks for reading,
Meghan B.

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