Real Life, Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is the story of Wallace, a Black, gay biochemistry student studying in a predominantly white university. But it is Taylor’s intimate prose and unflinching examination of American race relations that has garnered such reverence for his stunning debut:
“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 undermining racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.”
Taylor’s characterisation of Wallace is a quiet triumph of character study which explores the perils of Blackness in a predominantly white setting, evoking trauma, desire and loneliness. 2020 has shown that we live in a culture that makes little effort to understand the experiences of queer people of colour, but Real Life screams its visibility, something that is particularly resonant as it’s a frontrunner for the most diverse Booker shortlist ever.
There is a sharp undercurrent of the erotic throughout that recalls the sensuality of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Indeed, Real Life follows a long line of campus novels beloved by many, including Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and John Williams’ Stoner, but Taylor provides a much-needed lens to the genre that privileges the viewpoint of a young, gay, Black American man. This is a worthy addition to this esteemed genre, and one that will hopefully be remembered as on par with these classic works.
Intimations – Zadie Smith
Written at the beginning of a global crisis, Intimations touches upon the darkness of our times with words that have an astute sort of lightness. Smith’s collection, born at the stage of lockdown where one could joke about never-ending zoom calls and baking banana bread, manages to find common ground with others when human connection was, for most, at its lowest. It is interesting to revisit those ideas and feelings – ones that simultaneously seem so long ago yet remain so of the moment – at a time when Britain once again finds itself teetering towards a national lockdown.
With a lot of people struggling to muster anything more than a short attention span, these six essays are easily digestible whilst maintaining a certain level of thoughtfulness, and they are written in such a matter-of-fact way that it is difficult to see how anyone could argue against them. A particular highlight is ‘Postscript: Contempt as a Virus’ which, like most of the collection, is an exploration of the current and continuing failures of society. And, though it is easy to be sceptical of publications that touch on life during the pandemic since many of us are not ready to see our new realities reflected in art, Smith’s essays hone in on problems that already existed. Problems that the pandemic made us finally stop and pay attention to; our underfunded national health service, mental health and racism – to name a few. The question now is, what are we going to do about them?
The Chiffon Trenches – André Leon Talley
If you’re not that interested in the world of fashion and think that this book won’t be for you, think again. It’s intriguing, heart-breaking and full of gossip. From Anna Wintour to Karl Lagerfeld and everyone in-between, Talley doesn’t hold back in this fresh, confronting and excellently written memoir.
This is a candid examination of the notoriously ruthless fashion industry. Talley is humorous, mysterious and not afraid to confront his demons, discussing his problems with weight and extreme self-awareness. He also highlights the tragic effect that AIDs had on the fashion world. Most importantly and heartbreakingly, he discusses the instances of racism that followed him throughout his career. As one of the first high-profile Black men in the fashion industry, Talley helped to pave the way for those who came after him. His influence on this industry cannot be understated.
As well as recounting these serious experiences, he also provides the reader with delightfully devilish tales of his friendships within the fashion world. He does not hold back, even acknowledging that this book might change his relationships with those still in the industry. He mentions people such as Beyoncé, Renée Zellweger and Michelle Obama with an eye for entertainment and a talent for knowing what gossip the reader is after.
Talley strikes the perfect balance between entertaining and serious, humorous and informative. It’s a tough read at times, but you are compelled to keep reading - gripped by what Talley has written. He writes both his personal and professional life with emotion, clarity and bravery. An absolute must-read, highlighting the incredible life of one of the few high-profile Black men in the fashion industry at this time.