Brandon Taylor’s “The Late Americans” reinvents the campus novel.
Campus novels and starving-artist tales aren’t unusual. But Taylor, a Booker Prize finalist for his first novel, “Real Life,” observes this milieu with recent eyes, exploring how the social, sexual and inventive threads in his characters’ lives interweave or snag. Ivan, an aspiring dancer earlier than he was sidelined by an damage, loves Goran, a pianist with a belief fund, a dynamic that generates a storm of guilt and passive aggressiveness. When Ivan launches an OnlyFans-type account posting intercourse clips, it alleviates the cash problem — he turns into “part of that rarefied class that got to skim the money from the money” — however upends every thing else.
Elsewhere, Seamus, a poet, sulks by way of his seminars, contemptuous of writers spouting buzzword-y chatter about trauma, colonialism and sexism. His facet job in the kitchen of a hospice facility is directly a badge of honor — no privileged upper-class artiste, he — and a supply of embarrassment. Furtive intercourse fuels his self-loathing, his place in the “outer dark of estrangement from grace.” Fatima, a dancer, works bone-wearying shifts at a restaurant, and the gig prompts her cohort to see her as both overly dedicated to her muse or not dedicated sufficient.
“The Late Americans” is structured like a linked-story assortment, leaping from character to character, couple to couple. But moderately than feeling like disparate chapters rapidly stitched right into a narrative, as many such “novels” are, the discreteness and isolation of every part of “The Late Americans” performs into Taylor’s themes. Though the characters typically share residences, medication and intercourse, their moods are dictated by the moments after they carom off one another, dour and unsure and alone. “In the monastic kind of deprivation they found here, they turned to one another,” Taylor writes. “Every dying species sought its own kind of comfort.”
But Taylor — who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an apparent inspiration for the novel’s setting — can be cautious to indicate why every of them persist, each in love and artwork. He writes about intercourse superbly, the way it fuels everybody’s egos and divulges their anxieties. (Ivan’s uncertainty about posting intercourse clips isn’t about ethical judgment a lot as it’s about letting cash dictate the phrases of ecstasy. “How stupid. How very stupid,” he thinks.) Similarly, Taylor captures the uncooked physicality and precision of his dancers’ lives, and the flashes of grace and pleasure that emerge in a well-turned poem.
Taylor’s empathy for his characters is bone-deep — they’re residing the “wet amphibian prologue to their adult lives,” as he sweetly places it. But at every flip he needs to emphasize their precarity, the near-foolishness of aspiring to artistry in a time when cash both cheapens or destroys it. Fatima fears she’s going to by no means make ends meet: “Money is like an animal, changeful and anxious, ready to flee or bite. There is never enough of it.” And the novel’s title comes from Seamus imagining his cohort as diminished and antiquated, occupants of a “museum exhibit or a dollhouse.”
Taylor’s concerns of all this often lapse into simple tropes or cliché. Thin ice is symbolically stood upon. A yogurt cup is theatrically flung. A glass carafe is novelistically smashed. But these moments additionally function precursors for extra brutal moments, reminders that the ache and hazard his characters face aren’t summary, ivory-tower stuff. Assault, abuse and self-destructiveness are a part of the scene as properly, as they’re in anywhere the place lives are thought-about low cost. Artistic ambition is pitted towards a cigarette angrily extinguished in your pores and skin, towards scalding espresso flung in your face.
With “The Late Americans,” Taylor has directly deepened and moved past the conventional campus novels. We don’t get a glimpse of his characters’ post-collegiate lives, nor does Taylor attempt to tee up a sequel. Rather, he reveals the vary of financial and emotional storms beneath the town-and-gown milieu, and in the course of reveals how frequent these storms are. “There was pain for you and pain for you and pain for you — agony enough for everyone,” Seamus thinks. His mock-Oprah tone suggests he’s posturing as above that ache. But the ache is common.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the writer of “The New Midwest.”
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