On collegiate manhood and the anxiety of intimacy
by Annabel Rogers
Filthy Animals, Brandon Taylor, Daunt Books, 2021
Real Life, Brandon Taylor, Daunt Books, 2020
The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace, Viking Press, 1987
At the beginning of ‘Potluck’, the first story of Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals, a young man freshly out of the mental hospital and raw as a barely healed scab is alone on the street. Lionel, curiously blank, looks up at the window of the party he’s here to attend, a fragile square of light in the darkness. He is not a clean slate, exactly — cleanliness being a foreign notion in the collection’s titular filth — but there is a certain quality of fresh childishness about him. Upon joining the party, he cannot access his fellow guests’ interactions, not knowing who or what they are talking about. He is like a toddler, bored and frustrated by his parents’ friends’ conversations.
And then he makes eye contact with Charles. Charles is, in many ways, a fellow outsider, a dancer rather than an academic who seems to find social interaction equally difficult. Charles and Lionel carve out their own pocket of time in which they are outsiders together. Even within this first short interaction, they connect and they disconnect. Lionel feels a spike of academic alienation, having put grad school on hold for mental health reasons; Charles makes a flippant comment, ignorant of the former’s history, but their reconciliation comes when Lionel, recovering from his panic attack, realises that they have more in common than they initially think. And so it goes. Filthy Animals is made up of interlocking and fragmenting short stories that each follow this pattern: Brandon Taylor’s conception of humanity sees it as a series of clumsy and damaged celestial objects, alternately pulling into and pushing out of orbit and sometimes, in the worst cases, colliding.
The stories are an enthralling read. His prose is fluid, poetic at times and understated at others, always fully formed. As a reader, you feel as though you can trust him to express each fragment of his narrative in a suitable way. There is no anxiety about the quality of the next sentence: Taylor is confident in his craft. It is this confidence that allows him to experiment with the collection’s structure. His stories are simultaneously connected and disjunct, a microcosm of his conception of humanity — they are constructed fiction, after all. Taylor is no postmodernist, but he does deal with the nature of narrative in the world in his own subtle way. These disjointed stories are each their own bodies, their own filthy animals, circling each other, occasionally colliding to create something that is in itself a fragmented system of reference. A system of reference is here taken to mean a set of rules, concepts, and values that, understood together, make sense of a certain perspective on the world. Lionel’s comparison of Charles to a Chekhov character is an early, deliberate example: Lionel attempts to understand the world using the frame of literary reference, but Charles, ignorant of these ideas, cannot access this. It creates both an insider and an outsider, inclusionary and exclusionary at once.
The protagonist of Taylor’s Booker-longlisted debut novel, Real Life, feels a similar paradox of alienation. The character Wallace can almost be read as an alternate Lionel. He, too, struggles with the feeling of not fitting into an academic and a social setting. Taylor grounds Wallace’s story in mental health issues and racist microaggressions in academia, as a Black biochemistry postgraduate in a predominately white Midwestern university; Lionel, by contrast, is post-academia, trying to pick up the pieces on the other side of the stress-induced breakdown that Wallace is hurtling towards. Filthy Animals makes less explicit what Real Life centres — the world of academia, the realities of racism — but these concepts continue to exist on its periphery. Real Life, then, becomes a helpful key in understanding Lionel’s story.
Wallace’s problems in the lab map onto his problems in the social world, the sexual world, and the world of his past trauma. One such instance is the ruined nematodes, most likely sabotaged by a jealous, racist colleague. The ‘tranquil blue-green surface of the agar’ has been contaminated, festering with hideous decay though ‘uncannily like human skin in its soft firmness’. The use of simile here is deliberate. The agar is “like” human skin: Wallace is disgusted by the decay but cannot help but identify with it, as the attack on the nematodes is by extension an attack on him — he, too, has been contaminated and his inability to fit in at the lab manifests in literal decay. Taylor intertwines connection and disconnection with a sense of disgust: it is a natural, almost Darwinian trait in each of us to revile the outsider — even when that outsider is ourselves. We consider it a failure when we do not fit in; not belonging produces a unique sort of self-loathing. We are revolted by it.
This is a tension that comes to a violent head in the titular story of Filthy Animals. Milton is a teenager struggling with his own masculinity against a backdrop of his uncontrollable feelings for his best friend, Nolan. On Milton’s birthday, Nolan is accused of rape and, following this revelation, Milton has a slightly violent, certainly desperate sexual encounter with Abe, a boy he despises. A mire of homophobia and sexual disgust comes to a head as Nolan drives a rock into Abe’s skull. These are boys who don’t know who they are — or, if they do, they are afraid of it. They are alone, and made more alone by their being together. Something Taylor is keen to emphasise is the horror of other people, who act as distorted mirrors in which we can see ourselves — interactions in which we can become violent, desperate, disgusting.
In the bathroom of a college pub-turned-gay-bar, David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System features a similar homoerotic interaction full of disgusted self-loathing. Published over 30 years before Taylor’s work, it is similarly a novel about fitting in — or, rather, failing to fit in. Rick Vigorous, one of its protagonists, is the personification of embarrassed masculinity. He routinely fails to satisfy his girlfriend sexually or creatively, much like he routinely writes failed stories for the magazine he edits. Most significantly, he feels like a failure of a man when he returns to his alma mater, Amherst College (of which Foster Wallace was also an alumnus). Visiting his old haunts, including the now gay bar, Vigorous is equally intimidated and fascinated by a fellow alumnus, Andrew Lang, who is the paragon of ‘collegiate manhood as [Vigorous] had come to know it’. In the circumstances — of male one-upmanship and the pressure to seem straight without trying too hard — Vigorous is paralytically aware of how his sexuality comes across. Yet in attempting to perform his heterosexual masculinity to such an extent, Vigorous circles into the homoerotic. Lang is determined to call him ‘Dick’, despite his protests to the contrary; Vigorous considers the strength of his bladder to be an indicator of masculinity, an issue that leads inevitably to sentences such as ‘Long after my last tinkle had ceased to sound, I could still hear the roar of Lang’s jet. This was an Amherst man.’ His language all too easily doubles up as sexual in the context of the gay bar — perhaps in a failure to eloquently express himself or through a Freudian slip. Vigorous did not intend this slip, but Foster Wallace certainly did: what is, textually, a relationship of self-disgust and inferiority becomes, subtextually, a relationship of sexual intimacy.
Foster Wallace takes great pleasure in sexually experimenting between the literary lines. He imbues the gazes of his white male characters with fetishisation, no matter who or what they’re looking at: they use their language to objectify, enjoy, and control, though often in failed attempts. Jane Ward, in her 2015 study of sexuality Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, remarks on a similar, real-life phenomenon — the alignment of whiteness and masculinity as a complex of power that allows for sexual experimentation. White women and people of colour are not afforded the same fluidity. We see this not only in the two writers’ storylines, but also in their writing itself. Perhaps whiteness and masculinity align not only in sexual experimentation, but also in literary experimentation. Taylor as a writer is an outsider who must confront his own relationships with external pressures of identity before turning inwards to deal with the complicated literary heart in which Foster Wallace is so immediately absorbed.
Taylor beautifully constructs an entire world in which the most terrifying thing is the awareness of other people — not simply as other humans, but as reflectors, foils to the self. Sylvia, in ‘Little Beast’, while babysitting a feral young girl, feels disgust at the girl’s womanhood, the sort she cannot help but envy. The two young dancers in Charles’ class feel a similar revulsion at the maleness their bodies will inevitably inhabit. There is a savage wildness inside Lionel that persistently terrifies him. This is not a specific condition, the anxiety of gender, race, or sexuality — this is the human condition. This is what crawls beneath all our skin.
Taylor not only locates this disgust in the self, but also lets it bleed between the lines of his environments. Lionel returns from the mental hospital to a flat coated with two-week grime. Unappetising food drips from his plate and spills to the floor at the party. It is rare that he can keep his food down. Nothing is ever fully satisfying, either. The water is always tepid, the wine metallic, Charles sore for the wrong reasons after a night in Lionel’s bed. Each cold, revolting thing relates to another, to a character, to the world itself. It is its own sort of reference system, at once connecting and distancing. We share in the revulsion of Taylor’s language, yet we cannot help but be drawn into the picture it paints. It repels; it attracts. He forces us to look at our own external world in a different light, a light of polarising forces, intimacy, and disgust. Long after we’ve closed the cover of Filthy Animals, we find ourselves narrating our lives in his paradoxically distanced, intimate voice. This voice has the same ironies of the collection’s title, which designates us revolting beasts as controlled by baser impulses — set against the sensitivity and warmth of some of his characters, and the honesty with which he treats them.
For Taylor’s work is, indeed, emphatically human — more so than The Broom of the System. In an interview with Larry McCaffery for The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, Foster Wallace revealed that Lenore, the novel’s other protagonist, is the figure of his own ‘fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct’. This is not a fear common to the human psyche. Ironically, the fear of being fictional is a fear far more likely to be encountered on paper than in ‘real life’. Foster Wallace worries about the abstract; Taylor, on the other hand, worries about the immediate, the interpersonal. The biographical details that Taylor chooses to involve in his fiction are far from metaphysical. They are harsh realities: he told Electric Literature in 2020 that ‘all of the really awful things that the white people say to Wallace [in Real Life] are actual things that were said to me while I was a doctoral student’. The difference between the two writers, in this respect, is stark.
In Not Gay, Ward goes on to argue that sexual identity is less about whom one performs the physical act of sex with, and more about in which culture one positions oneself. A straight man having sex with a man remains straight because of the culture he does it in, the dual disgust and obsession it is imbued with, the toxic masculinity that surrounds it. It is context dependent. Collegiate manhood exists in an anxiety of external perception. If we continue to apply Ward’s theories about sex to literature as well, this is doubly revealing. Foster Wallace, writing within the long-flowing stream of white male literary history, is free to do what he likes with his work while retaining his status. Taylor, by contrast, is pigeonholed and placed under scrutiny. He is frequently compared to older Black writers over his white contemporaries: in an interview for The Guardian in 2020, he expressed his exasperation: ‘I’m like, what Baldwin novel is this book in conversation with?’ The experience of racism that Taylor discusses is condensed into a defining characteristic, the only characteristic. His work is reduced to the colour of its author’s skin.
As a result, his troubled relationship with human connection and reference systems is understandable. He does not wish to fit neatly into a white-assigned box; on the other hand, he longs for the kind of connection and companionship that comes with fitting in. This is the root of all his paradox, what guided him in his maturation as a writer from Real Life to Filthy Animals. As he remarked to André Wheeler, ‘Writing a novel ruins your life in really specific ways. Because you have to live inside of it. It’s just this sustained exercise in being miserable.’ Both Real Life and Filthy Animals are efforts in carving out spaces, but while he found Real Life to be all-consuming, Taylor develops a greater distance with Filthy Animals. Previously, he lived inside his novel; in his short stories, he lives instead in the spaces in between them. There are parts of him in each story, but there also remains a part of him anchored in the real world.
Taylor goes on to tell Wheeler that he ‘could have written [Real Life] to be more sympathetic to the white gaze, but it would’ve been a worse book’. He does not make it easy for white readers; he does not strive to make them feel comfortable. His challenge to a white reader’s whiteness provokes disgust. It also provokes intimacy, another paradox. In Filthy Animals, he still declines to pander to the white gaze, but the undertones of racism resonate with last summer’s protests. His preoccupation with unhygienic disgust and loneliness are indelibly linked to COVID-19 and the consequent isolation. But he does not reference these current events directly. They are simmering just below the surface. Real Life is a book for our times: post-postmodernist, looking to consolidate collective human life, discomfort and relief, warts and all. It is a system of reference; one we can understand as a microcosm for real life. Reading it makes us feel less alone.
In 1993, Foster Wallace told McCaffery,
‘I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. [...] If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.’
Writing is a symbiotic process of connection, one whose ultimate aim is the elimination of loneliness. The resonance with Taylor’s work is undeniable. The two authors might write from different positions of privilege, but their work connects over the gap of time, in their criticism of toxic collegiate manhood, anxiety about human relationships, and loneliness. They share a fragile quality of reaching out for intimacy, literary and otherwise, and Taylor is perfectly placed to explore this quest from an underexplored perspective, full of disgust, but desperate nonetheless. There’s something uniquely human about that.
ANNABEL ROGERS reads English at Magdalen College, where her friends pretend to take a shot every time she mentions David Foster Wallace.
Art by Alexander Haveron-Jones