I read this book as part of an anti-racist reading group in my college, but I find it hard to say this is a book about race. It is, indeed, a book about race, about graduate education, queerness, trauma, but most of all about the way all of these intersect so uniquely in Brandon Taylor’s writing.
His most prominent and articulate talent is the portrayal of emotion, by creating a sense of undeniable closeness between the reader and the characters. Wallace is gay, black, comes from Alabama and is part of a biochemistry PhD programme in a predominantly white university. This would be the so-called objective way of describing this book. But I’ve learned that objectivity is useless and Brandon Taylor’s craft is just another supporting argument.
Wallace is confined to a hermetically sealed world and the oxygen is running out. He’s used to being with himself, into his own mind, nodding or just ignoring everytime he’s attacked and nobody seems to muster up the courage to say something. It’s easier this way. People that love him don’t have to feel guilty for being cowards and he can just blame himself for putting up with this.
Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder, but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to. No one does. No one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened. Only Wallace will remember it. That’s the frustrating part. Wallace is the only one for whom this is a humiliation.
The graduate world is cruel, competitive and unforgivable, especially so when it is so easy to talk about the gay black man coming from an underprivileged environment, as they say. It is so easy to do that because then one doesn’t need to look at one’s faults, at one’s own unhappiness and desperation. Seeing him struggle is enough to feel better about oneself, so there’s the need of keeping him in that same position. When he feels like retorting, Wallace doesn’t. Even when he’s called a misogynist, a gay man (nobody really dares to talk about race, but everybody knows that’s what it boils down to) who thinks he can take all the spotlight away from the other oppressed groups. Maybe he doesn’t have enough oxygen left to counteract so he just sinks deeper in his own claustrophobic world. He can’t reach out and even if he did, who would be there to reach out to that would feel competent enough to help? That wouldn’t get terrified of being the chosen one? That wouldn’t feel the burden is too heavy? That’s what Wallace feels about himself: he’s a burden. So he says no to party invites and goes home. He says no to sailing with his friends and goes into the lab. It seems easier to be less involved than to feel unwanted.
The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, 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 judgement. 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.
When two such closed worlds collide, the pressure has a chance to either be relieved or to increase even more. Wallace and Miller, who can’t get over his internalised homophobia while starting to become vulnerable with Wallace, start a dance in which the two options alternate in an almost obsessive manner: the powerful impact, the eroticism that makes the tension go away for a short time, the increase of danger as they share their stories in a desperate attempt at an intimacy none of them is prepared for and then the inevitable parting, each of them alone with their own fears and insecurities. All the frustration is turned into erotic desire and it is unclear to say if this has the result of strengthening the fragile bond they share or if it ends up just building another barrier that keeps them from getting close.
It would be too much to give it up, to be alone in the dark, now that he has been with Miller in the dark. What he fears, though, and it’s a cold, glittering fear rising in him, is that now he’ll never be able to face the dark alone again. That he’ll always want this, seek this, once it’s lost to him.
This book is so compelling because it combines the talent of the writer (hard to believe this is just his debut novel) with the non-altered truth that doesn’t try to appeal to the white fragility of the potential readers. In an interview for The Guardian, Brandon Taylor said:
When white people and straight people would read my work, they would fail to see what was going on.Anyone who comes of age in this country and is not a straight white man automatically gets devalued. We’re made to feel like, ‘I’m not Dostoevsky. My story is small and niche.’ That it doesn’t have all the great drama of human life. Eventually, it was this matter of centering my own experiences and pursuing with a really intense focus and conviction the stuff that spoke to me. Because I could have written this book to be more sympathetic to the white gaze, but it would’ve been a worse book.
I needed to read this book. We need this book to be read. From academia to industry and to day-to-day interaction, a plethora of perspectives and experiences is shut off because we* don’t feel ready to hear them out or because we’re just too ignorant to even acknowledge them. We worry about our feelings because it’s easier to see that we’re not the only ones with feelings.
*By we I mean the general white population that lives according to an unnoticed whiteness which is seen as the norm. I use this word because racism is a collective issue and we need to start looking at it this way instead of just insisting that we’re too unique individuals to be included in such a group.