“It was a cool evening in late summer, when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all.”
Wallace is a young, gay, Black man who is four years into a degree in biochemistry at a predominantly white Midwestern university—the only Black man in his department as well as among his group of friends. The book, narrated from Wallace’s point of view, follows him over a summer weekend.
He is happier working on his experiment in the university lab than hanging out with his friends who are enjoying the summer by the lake. Wallace doesn’t really feel part of the group. Most of his friends are from comfortable homes (both financially and emotionally) and, for them, going to university is taken for granted.
Wallace, on the other hand, has had to fight for his place at the university, not only as a Black man but also as someone from a poor family. He is drawn to Miller, who also comes from a disadvantaged background. Both men are haunted by childhood traumas which have left emotional scars. It’s not surprising that they have an intense, sometimes violent, affair.
Although Wallace’s friends mean well, there is a such a large gap between his experiences and theirs that they don’t really understand him. During the course of the Friday evening, Wallace tells his friend Emma about his father’s death. Emma is more upset for Wallace than he is: so much so that Wallace has to pretend to grieve.
“[T]he trouble with these people, with his friends, with the world, was that they thought things had to be a certain way with family. They thought you had to feel something for them, and it had to be the same thing that everyone felt or else you were doing it wrong. …[H]e made his face into a calm mask of quiet, still sadness.”
Wallace also has to put up with the racial slurs, even when he is among friends. When he blurts out that he wants something more than academia and hates being at the university, Roman, a Frenchman who is part of his group, tells him that he should finish his degree: it would be ungrateful to the people who spent “so much money on your training” and who brought him in “knowing what your deficiencies are”.
One of his colleagues in the lab is Dana, a student who the head of the department thinks is gifted, although it is never clear why: she never really seems to know what she’s doing. When her experiment suffers because she ignores Wallace’s advice, she blames him. The department head supports her without giving it a second thought, although Wallace is obviously the better student.
But Wallace can also be self-centred in a way that those who have been through major traumas can be. When Miller tells Wallace about something he did as a child, Wallace leaves without saying anything. It does not occur to him that Miller might see his silence as a judgement. He is also unaware of the fact that his friend Brigit, a Chinese-American woman in his department, also has to put up with racial slurs—until she points it out to him.
This book stayed with me long after I finished reading it. Brandon Taylor’s writing is powerful. Here is a quote from Wallace on the hold the past can have over you:
“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 swallowing you up, always taking. If you don’t hold it back, 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.”
But the past is always hard to break free of.
Taylor writes perceptively about race, relationships and emotional trauma. It does not make for easy reading. However, it is very moving and eye-opening. I am glad I read it.