“The Late Americans” is Brandon Taylor’s best book so far. More mature than his Booker-nominated debut, “Real Life,” more polished than “Filthy Animals,” his third is a novel about the anxieties and pieties of millennial grad students as they grapple with the art life and, more literally, each other. Taylor asks the big questions: What does art demand? (“Was it worth putting your whole family on the brink of extinction?”) How does one live an ethical life? Is it possible to slip the reins of class, race, and gender to forge lasting connections with others?
Taylor refracts these questions through the perspectives of a group of people, mostly gay, as their lives intersect in present-day Iowa City. Most of them are at the university — teaching logic, pursuing futures in dance, completing MBAs. Others have so-called “real” jobs: Bea teaches swimming; “Fyodor worked in beef, as a leaner.” They drink and argue and dance and sleep together: This is the meat of the book.
In both personal relations and the zero-sum world of art, Taylor is interested in the interplay of racial and class dynamics. Fatima, “the only black person in the dance program,” has to work to support herself, a fact her peers disdain — how can she give her all to her art when she’s making lattes? Meanwhile, Timo comes from “the so-called Black Upper Middle Class in D.C., but what differentiated this from the regular Upper Middle Class, meaning white, was that there was less money and the money was less durable on the whole.” Despite his keen awareness of this, he mocks his boyfriend Fyodor (also Black) as “our lady of working-class piety.”
Taylor’s characters, with their highly attuned political-structural constitutions, can be exhilarating or exhausting, depending on taste. This is particularly the case in the classroom scenes, where student attitudes lean toward woke-beyond-irony. Interestingly, however, Taylor starts “The Late Americans” from the perspective of a poet (white, gay) who rejects such right-on takes — “not because he believed that trauma was fake, but because he didn’t think it necessarily had anything to do with poetry.” He thinks it “tacky” to assume that authenticity can only be mined from personal trauma. By opening the novel thus, Taylor seems to be suggesting that all hermeneutics have limits. Though systemic prejudice may be everywhere, seeing art only through that lens leads to absurdity.
Sex is the novel’s other great governing theme. Most of our protagonists are links in a chain of bored or impromptu sexual encounters: Seamus to Bert to Noah to Ivan to Goran… It’s the impulse that undergirds and sometimes overwhelms the cerebralism of Taylor’s neurotic intellectuals. The irresistible warmth of bodies forces his characters out of themselves and acts as a shield against the blasted Iowan landscape. They give off “acidic heat,” “wet heat,” “animal heat.” Sex is visceral, odoriferous, and usually joyless. One encounter ends with a cigarette to the face.
The feral is close to the surface everywhere in Taylor’s world. An engine rumbles “like a drowsing animal.” A creaking floor gives “a sharp yelp, like a frightened cat.” Dancers have “an aloof, feral quality to them, like coyotes in a zoo”; poets are “like pack animals.” This creates a kind of Dionysian counterpoint to the characters’ intellectual posturing. Thus the flipside of Seamus’s scathing critical temperament is his desire to be dominated sexually, to be treated (not Taylor’s word) “like dogmeat.” While these aren’t necessarily opposing impulses, the tension between them is illuminating.
Why “Late Americans”? The phrase comes from a wistful Seamus: “It was so easy to imagine the hands of some enormous and indifferent God prying the house open and squinting at them as they went about their lives on their circuits like little automatons in an exhibit called The Late Americans.” It’s a melancholy vision of powerlessness in which one might also detect an echo of “late capitalism” — a phrase used, typically ironically, to encompass the absurdities and horrors of contemporary life. Many such nightmares nibble at the edges of the novel — a mass shooting, a kidnapping, the unforgotten ravages of AIDS.
The title also sets the novel’s elegiac tone. It’s partly ironic — a reference to students on the precipice of so-called real life, that phrase again (Fatima calls graduation “the end of the world”). But it gestures toward the current political landscape as well, a context that registers sporadically in the novel. We live in an irretrievably broken world, tragedy everywhere. Taylor’s use of the cutaway sentence as a synecdoche for unspoken disaster is a deft way of gesturing toward this without hammering it home. For example: “Bea had been an only child most of her childhood, except for one slim, dark year when she had not been.” Such fragments may offer minimal clues to a character’s faultlines, yet their simple eloquence lends the book a rich thematic coherence.
One of the epigraphs to “The Late Americans” comes from Louise Glück, Taylor’s favorite poet: “What are we without this? / Whirling in the dark universe, / alone, afraid, unable to influence fate.” Here, “this” could refer to “effort” or “trying,” words that precede these lines in the poem. And it’s trying, perhaps, that binds Taylor’s characters most forcefully to each other. For all their disagreements and misunderstandings and incompatibilities, they’re all attempting to make peace with the cosmic bêtise of existence, to figure out how to live without compromising everything they value. It’s beautiful and wrenching to watch them try.
THE LATE AMERICANS
By Brandon Taylor
Riverhead, 320 pages, $28
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films, and music.