Brandon Taylor’s Potlucks and Parties

Brandon Taylor’s Potlucks and Parties

Where the Wild Things Are

Brandon Taylor’s university dramas.


Is an animal a being or a boundary? Is it a kind of living organism or a threshold that anyone might cross—
if pushed far enough? As the scholar Jack Halberstam argues in his latest book, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, many of our associations with animals and their natural habitat are rooted in colonial practices of categorization that distinguished “the domestic/tame/civilized” from “the foreign/wild/barbaric.” However, far from urging us to dismantle this binary, Halberstam asks us merely to reorganize the judgments we attach to it so that the wild and animalistic might not be something we fear descending into but rather something we might actively embrace. Much as queer theory seeks to recuperate the word “queer” itself, Halberstam notes, so too should we reclaim “wildness” as not a disparagement but as a mode of resistance. To be wild is not to fail at being civilized but to recognize the failures of civilization to sustain life—physically and spiritually. Wildness, he argues, “functions as a form of disorder that will not submit to rule, a mode of unknowing, a resistant ontology, and a fantasy of life beyond the human.”

Filthy Animals, the novelist Brandon Taylor’s first short story collection, is filled with characters who crave the kind of feral freedom that Halberstam describes. The opening story, “Potluck,” begins with a character looking into the window of an apartment on a frigid Wisconsin winter night: “Noise of an undifferentiated party variety drifted out into the deep blue cold, meeting Lionel under the sunroom window, where he had stopped to peer inside.” Varying degrees of ferociousness await him there: classist disdain from the academics in attendance, unwanted sexual advances, and wanted sexual advances that presage jealousy-driven acts of cruelty. Interior spaces do not offer warmth and protection from the elements but instead leave Lionel and many of the other characters in the collection (many of whom are queer, women, and people of color) vulnerable to the predations of stronger human animals. At one point, Lionel finds himself sitting next to the girlfriend of a man who has been flirting with him and senses “a kind of heat” transferring between them, “some kind of animal recognition.”

This first story lays out the basic terrain of Filthy Animals. Over the 11 stories, mostly set in Madison, Wis. (where Taylor attended graduate school in biochemistry), the spaces of civilized domesticity are revealed to be the dirtiest, bloodiest, most dangerous places in which a wounded animal could find itself. This is conveyed quite literally at times: The humans of Filthy Animals are prone to baring their teeth, making fists, shedding or drawing blood; on occasion, they even bite. A largely middle-class array of professionals—mathematicians, ballet dancers, medical students—their mouths seem perpetually open and ready to attack, their hands rarely far from a sharp object to throw at their rivals or lovers.

The violence in Filthy Animals is that of gentility. It is domesticated. As Taylor’s characters brutalize one another in recital rooms, lecture halls, coffee shops, and other spaces that we are conditioned to think of as full of erudite, well-mannered types, we are left to conclude that these kinds of places—formal and informal corridors of power—in fact provoke the worst and basest instincts in people. More than being in the wilderness, it is within the shimmering towers of civilization that we are likely to be at our most animalistic. Taylor’s first book, the novel Real Life, was a campus drama set within a fiercely competitive graduate program in biology. Filthy Animals in many ways represents a continuation of that novel’s exploration of the cruel forces unleashed by aspiration and entitlement. Everyone, both books suggest, is merely a worm trying to evade a scientist’s ambition-laden 
scalpel or a rival lover’s dueling pistol. Here, once again, we encounter the sharp incisors of people who are used to getting their way, and others—women, people of color, queer people, workers—who are expected to offer up their flesh in response.

Taylor writes with incredible clarity and precision about the lives of people in small university towns, and how they are never as quaint or idyllic as those on the outside might imagine. In both his fiction and his personal essays, he explores the casual brutalities of the academic world and the ways in which they are intensified for people of color. Writing about his decision to leave that world in an article for BuzzFeed, he recounted some of the racist comments and attitudes he ran up against while in graduate school: “Science was the constant humiliation of wondering if I had justified my presence or if I had made it harder for the next black person to get admitted. Science was having to worry about that in the first place.”

Taylor’s lab training, however, stayed with him even after he left school. It turns out that a fascination with nascent life forms and what they can grow into serves a writer of fiction well. In both science and writing, “you churn the raw material of life into something that can be understood,” he notes, “and when you fail, you marvel at the mystery of things.”

This fascination with the beauty of failed subjects was at the center of Taylor’s debut novel. Nominated for the Booker Prize, Real Life tells the story of Wallace, a gay Black graduate student in biochemistry, as he navigates the social isolation and racism of his predominantly white research lab. There is perhaps no better environment to see people at their most primal than in a cutthroat graduate program where resources are scarce, survival (a research job) is prized above all else, and might (tenure) makes right. Racism exacerbates all of these things; an enduring belief in white intellectual superiority results in Wallace’s capabilities constantly being underestimated. Dana, a white lab mate who is considered “bright, bright, bright” despite her poor technique and displays of impatience with her research project, is so loath to ask Wallace for assistance that she “skewer[s] the animals with the needle” and works so slowly that they become dehydrated: “Her worms turned into hard pralines right there on the slide.” In Filthy Animals, people treat one another the way Dana treats her worms: as means to an end, as tools for getting what they want. No one is safe from this instrumentalization; all can be loaded onto a slide and prodded until their insides burst.

Filthy Animals is its own book, and Wallace of course does not appear, but the cast of characters in the collection share a lot in common with him. They are lonely, uncertain, and looking for a way out of the various cages they find themselves in. They also, at times, prove to be the predator as well as the prey. As the characters try to betray their way out of relationships, sabotage their careers, or attempt to end their lives, we are reminded that freeing oneself can often be a violent process.

“Potluck” introduces us to several characters who will return subsequently in “Flesh,” “Proctoring,” “Mass,” “Apartment,” and “Meat.” These stories revolve around Lionel and two ballet students, Charles and Sophie. Lionel, it is revealed, was in the mathematics graduate program but took a medical leave of absence following a suicide attempt. His motivations for trying to take his life are deliberately presented as murky and diffuse, but his family suspects it is because “he’d been ripping and running with all them white kids at school.” Lionel contests this suggestion: “His aunts and uncles saw his desire to kill himself as an extension of all those things they didn’t like or understand,” but “it was nobody’s fault. Things happened.” We learn that the party is his first attempt to socialize after a stay in a mental health facility. Uneasy, he looks around the potluck table for grains and greens, careful to avoid meat, which he has stopped eating since his suicide attempt: “The thought of consuming dead things, when he had been so close to dying, when he had wanted to die, was too much.”

From the dinner party, we get flashbacks to Lionel’s time at the facility, which was designed to give the appearance (despite windows that could not fully open) that a person there could come and go. Referring to the delicate and unimposing material of the locking mechanisms on the windows, Lionel realizes that it was intended “to look not threatening,” that the staff “wanted the people at the facility to feel affirmed by their captivity.” At the party, he is a captive to different forms of social pressures and nearly buckles under their weight, at one point having to excuse himself to go to the bathroom. When he meets Charles and Sophie for the first time, he discovers a couple of kindred spirits, at least in one important way: They too are ambivalent, as any domesticated animal would be, torn between the competing desires for safety, protection, and enclosure and for absolute and boundless freedom.

As Lionel gets to know them, he discovers that Charles and Sophie are in a nonmonogamous relationship. They pretend not to belong to each other, but that pretense unravels frequently and with ferocity. After the party is over, Charles follows Lionel home in the snow, leading to a sexual encounter between the two men that eventually binds the three of them together. Sophie forces Lionel into a tense friendship, seemingly unsure how to balance her various conflicting urges—to affirm her commitment to free love, but also to win, to beat out the competition. When Lionel becomes uncomfortable with it all and tries to leave her apartment, Sophie tries harder to bait him and starts to bare her fangs, literally. “Do you think I’ll eat you?” she asks, as she “snapped her teeth playfully at him.”

In “Little Beast,” we find out what the other side of this kind of entrapment—a full-on embrace of being feral—would look like. Fittingly, it is a story about a child. It centers on a seemingly twentysomething babysitter named Sylvia and the little girl she’s in charge of along with her brother, and we quickly realize that either one could be the titular beast. The girl gets into all sorts of muck; early on in the story, she walks over to Sylvia and reveals that her hands are covered in dog shit. Later, Sylvia finds her jumping up and down on her parents’ bed, totally naked, covered in scratches, her hair filled with twigs and dirt. “How has she done this to herself? She looks like a wild thing,” she thinks in frustration. Sylvia does not handle this kid with kid gloves: She plunges the little girl’s shit-covered fingers into hot, almost scalding water. “It would be nothing, would take nothing,” she thinks, “to rend this girl to pieces.” Taylor compares Sylvia in this moment to the wily beast in “Little Red Riding Hood,” describing her as “part wolf,” though not because Sylvia is angry with her; it is more that she sees herself too much in the girl. Recently out of a relationship and engaging in self-destructive sexual behavior with the father she babysits for, Sylvia recognizes in the girl’s wildness a burning thirst she likewise feels at the back of her throat. It is the same burning that led her to leave her boyfriend, to be unbound by the needs and expectations imposed on women by men: “Sylvia thinks she can understand the girl. She knows what it is to be trapped inside a thing, inside a life. She knows what it is to want to tear a hole in everything.”

In Taylor’s title story, “Filthy Animals,” we meet a pair of young men who are not quite at that point yet, not entirely ready to bare all and give in to sheer instinct. Its main characters, Milton and Nolan, two Black teenagers, have just gotten high in a basement when they get a text from a white boy named Abe and his friend Tate, who invite the pair to a “burner” out in the woods. “Burner,” it is explained, “means there will be ten to fifteen people they vaguely know and kerosene-soaked rags torched in metal barrels. Cheap whiskey, cheap beer for the Christians. Coke, molly, and weed for the true believers,” rounded out by the scent of “Tommy Boy cologne” and the look of “dark denim turned white in the crotch and ass from wear.” Tate and Abe, Taylor alerts us, “bring out the worst in Nolan, excite the animal part of him.” The boys all know each other from Sunday school and have a history of becoming violent in their encounters. These scuffles and fistfights are often just an excuse to touch one another, to be intimate and physical in a way that does not stir up feelings too complicated—until it does. Desire subdued breeds violence, and that night things go too far; the usual roughhousing gets complicated by the insertion of a rock. When it is all over, Milton steps out of the woods looking to clean the blood, dirt, and cum off of his hands. (The trees had offered a brief hiding place from the rest of the world.)

The other stories in the collection maintain an interest in physicality and bodies and force. In “Mass,” a young man named Alek thinks about his brothers, type-A medical students who used to beat him up as a kid; one even ground a lit cigarette into his arm. “Perhaps it was always this way with brothers,” Alek speculates, “a truce brokered only after an equilibrium of physical strength had been met, as if the potential for mutual destruction were the only thing that kept them from tearing each other limb from limb.” In “What Made Them Made You,” a young woman with cancer feels a mysterious presence suffocating her at night but is told not to fear it, as she is made of the same stuff as any monster found on earth (which reads, particularly in the context of the story, as an allegory about family in a culture that tells us to accept or paper over the violence they can inflict on us).

Only in “Anne of Cleves,” the story of a woman, Marta, settling into her first lesbian relationship, do we get something like a reprieve, an example of humans living in harmony with the natural world, not so much taming it as fusing together with it. Marta finds in this relationship a safe place where, unlike at work or in her previous relationships, she no longer feels compelled by men to give them what they want from her, to protect their egos, to circumvent their anger. In Sigrid, her new partner, she is freed from that, and their relationship slowly becomes surrounded by vegetation, by wild things that nurture. “They had grown vegetables in a little plot behind the house and pickled them,” Taylor writes. “They opened jars of okra and peas and beans. They made their own kraut. Their house smelled like vinegar, but it was the healthiest that Marta had felt in a long time.”

In recent months, Taylor has also emerged as a talented (if self-deprecating) cultural critic. Whenever he’s about to publish an essay, he tweets a picture of Taylor Swift dressed in a serious-looking black sweater with her hair in bangs. “You know what this pic means,” he announces to his followers. “Essay time!” one responds. The image of Swift is Taylor’s way of gently mocking the “internet essayists,” a term he has never quite defined but that I think from contextual clues refers to bad-faith takes on identity engineered to get clicks but not to move the conceptual needle forward. Taylor’s own online writing shows us that this is such a waste of the Internet, which in his hands is reminiscent of its earlier, unfettered iteration. He uses the freedom of online publishing to take risks, to tell the truth about your faves. His popular newsletter, Sweater Weather (named for his love of the garment), defies simple categorization. Launched in 2019, Sweater Weather ranges in modes and registers and includes everything from erotic Stanley Tucci fan fiction to commentary on race in the contemporary horror genre (“How do you make something to terrify a people who have lived for generations in a state of constant besiegement?”). Taylor has also written about the “internet novel,” a category that seems to have finally arrived this year as a legitimate subgenre, thanks to entries by Lauren Oyler (Fake Accounts) and Patricia Lockwood (No One Is Talking About This). Publicly voicing a frustration shared privately among Black writers and critics, Taylor notes that “through no fault of their own,” these books were credited with capturing the whole of online culture, rather than what felt like a distinctly white understanding of the Internet as primarily a source of emotional disturbance: “None of the transformative capacity or will to change that animates so much of online life for black and brown and queer people exists in these novels.” Referring to the message boards and chatrooms he spent time in growing up, Taylor notes that “the internet saved my life when I was younger…. Because while the world I lived in told me one thing about myself, the greater world told me I could be something else.”

Neither Real Life nor Filthy Animals could be described exactly as being Internet fiction, though each depicts a world that Black and queer online spaces could offer refuge from. His characters (especially Wallace and Lionel) are undeniably isolated, surrounded by people who make demands of them both to be things they are not and to not be things they are—and to read these people’s minds about when it’s the proper time for each. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Taylor’s writing, from his fiction to his Twitter page to his newsletter, has created precisely that space for readers now: a refuge from the beastly terrors of marginalization—an untamed, unruly, ecstatic wilderness.

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