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Brandon Taylor's "The Late Americans" reinvents the campus novel.

May 21, 2023

"Let's not talk about money," a character pleads late in Brandon Taylor's bruising, brilliant second novel, "The Late Americans." But how can they avoid it? Taylor's cast is mostly made up of aspiring artists at an Iowa university — dancers, poets — and their finances (or lack of them) all but physically push their bodies around. It determines their relationships, moods and senses of self. It comforts and breaks them.

Campus novels and starving-artist stories aren't uncommon. But Taylor, a Booker Prize finalist for his first novel, "Real Life," observes this milieu with fresh eyes, exploring how the social, sexual and creative threads in his characters’ lives interweave or snag. Ivan, an aspiring dancer before he was sidelined by an injury, loves Goran, a pianist with a trust fund, a dynamic that generates a storm of guilt and passive aggressiveness. When Ivan launches an OnlyFans-type account posting sex clips, it alleviates the money issue — he becomes "part of that rarefied class that got to skim the money from the money" — but upends everything else.

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Elsewhere, Seamus, a poet, sulks through his seminars, contemptuous of writers spouting buzzword-y chatter about trauma, colonialism and sexism. His side job in the kitchen of a hospice facility is at once a badge of honor — no privileged upper-class artiste, he — and a source of embarrassment. Furtive sex fuels his self-loathing, his place in the "outer dark of estrangement from grace." Fatima, a dancer, works bone-wearying shifts at a cafe, and the gig prompts her cohort to see her as either overly committed to her muse or not committed enough.

"The Late Americans" is structured like a linked-story collection, jumping from character to character, couple to couple. But rather than feeling like disparate chapters hastily stitched into a narrative, as many such "novels" are, the discreteness and isolation of each section of "The Late Americans" play into Taylor's themes. Though the characters often share apartments, drugs and sex, their moods are dictated by the moments after they carom off each other, dour and uncertain 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 obvious inspiration for the novel's setting — is also careful to show why each of them persist, both in love and in art. He writes about sex beautifully, how it fuels everyone's egos and reveals their anxieties. (Ivan's uncertainty about posting sex clips isn't about moral judgment so much as it is about letting money dictate the terms of ecstasy. "How stupid. How very stupid," he thinks.) Similarly, Taylor captures the raw physicality and precision of his dancers’ lives, and the flashes of grace and joy that emerge in a well-turned poem.

Taylor's empathy for his characters is bone-deep — they’re living the "wet amphibian prologue to their adult lives," as he sweetly puts it. But at each turn he wants to stress their precarity, the near-foolishness of aspiring to artistry in a time when money either cheapens or destroys it. Fatima fears she will never 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 considerations of all this occasionally lapse into easy tropes or cliché. Thin ice is symbolically stood upon. A yogurt cup is theatrically flung. A glass carafe is novelistically smashed. But those moments also serve as precursors for more brutal moments, reminders that the pain and danger his characters face aren't abstract, ivory-tower stuff. Assault, abuse and self-destructiveness are part of the scene as well, as they are in any place where lives are considered cheap. Artistic ambition is pitted against a cigarette angrily extinguished on your skin, against scalding coffee flung in your face.

With "The Late Americans," Taylor has at once deepened and moved beyond the traditional campus novels. We don't get a glimpse of his characters’ post-collegiate lives, nor does Taylor try to tee up a sequel. Rather, he reveals the range of economic and emotional storms underneath the town-and-gown milieu, and in the process shows how common those 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 pain. But the pain is universal.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of "The New Midwest."

By Brandon Taylor

Riverhead. 320 pp. $28

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