SEPTEMBER 10, 2021
“POTLUCK,” THE FIRST story in Filthy Animals, may just be the perfect encapsulation of a Brandon Taylor story. It reads a lot like a miniaturized version of Real Life, Taylor’s debut novel, released last year to widespread critical acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and included in The New York Times’s “100 Notable Books of 2020”). All the ingredients of a Taylor story are here: an outsider protagonist, a dinner party, an explosive romantic encounter, and a microscopic examination of the violence lurking under even the most benign encounters. Taylor’s unique gifts are all on display in this opening story, which forms the first in a quintet of linked tales featuring recurring characters (the 11 stories in the collection all influence one another in various ways).
Taylor is uniquely adept at capturing the discomforting feeling of being out of place at a social gathering. For anyone who’s ever had the painful experience of standing around awkwardly at a party, hovering on the fringes of conversations hoping to be admitted, this collection will surely resonate. See, for example, this moment early on in “Potluck”:
The conversation was difficult to catch. Everyone was talking in extended references to other moments, other events, other parties, and each reference, instead of drawing two things into relation, was instead the whole of the idiom, the entirety of the gesture. […] He had no way of getting inside the reference, the system.
This quality of being “outside,” in one way or another, is one of the recurring themes of Taylor’s writing. In both Real Life and Filthy Animals, Taylor is preoccupied with various categories of estrangement — whether among friends, among peers, or even among one’s own family.
Perhaps it is Taylor’s scientific background that allows him to anatomize social interactions so effectively (he left a graduate program in biochemistry to pursue a writing career). As in the above quoted passage, Taylor treats human interaction schematically without being overly clinical. For anyone worried that a scientific background might lend itself to a stilted, lifeless prose, I can assure you that the stories in this collection pulse with life. Neither cold nor detached, these stories are suffused with a warmth and humanity that recalled for me the uncanniness of Raymond Carver, the empathy of Alice Munro, and the meticulous irony of Chekhov.
There is indeed much of Chekhov in these stories — in their revealing details, in the way events gradually build and unspool, in the author’s close observation that plumbs the depths of human behavior. As if cheekily noting the connection, one character in “Potluck” even makes passing reference to the Russian author: “Is your heart’s desire to interrogate strangers at a dinner party like a Chekhov character?” In Chekhov’s stories, we are often given a one-dimensional portrait of a character at the beginning, which is further complicated and revised as the tale progresses, so that by the end our initial expectations have been undermined.
Taylor’s gift for close, empathetic observation can be found especially in the linked stories in this collection. The dancer Charles, for example, whom we first encounter in the opening story through the limited vantage point of Lionel, is given greater depth in the third story, “Flesh.” Here, we inhabit Charles’s perspective as he explores his relationship to dance and to his body, the fragile vehicle for his livelihood, as well as his complicated relationship with Sophie. This relationship, the linchpin of the linked stories, is fractured by a sexual encounter with Lionel in the opening story, only to reach a kind of tentative resolution in the final story in the collection, “Meat.” Charles, who in the first story is an enigmatic antagonist and romantic interest, is eventually afforded the same narrative attention as Lionel, and as a result our initial view of him grows more complicated. He is no longer just a minor character but a flawed and interesting human being in his own right.
As characters appear and reappear across stories, we are given richer, more nuanced portraits of each of them. Encountering them again and again, we experience some of the readerly joys one is accustomed to in a novel. Indeed, the hybrid form of the collection places it somewhere between a gathering of individual stories and an episodic novella. Not all the stories are explicitly related, but they all share similar settings, preoccupations, and themes. Most concern the lives of students or young people engaged in creative professions, most are set somewhere in the Midwest, and many feature characters who are estranged in some way from their families. Almost all feature a character who is on the “outside,” often due to their race or sexual orientation.
Although the stories are successful as individual units, I found myself most compelled by the ones that follow Lionel, Sophie, and Charles. These linked tales, stitched throughout the collection, allow the characters, and thus the author, more room to stretch out and breathe. This added depth and resonance sometimes made the stand-alone stories feel leaner by comparison. This isn’t to say that such tales as “Little Beast” or “As Though That Were Love” aren’t well crafted in their own right, but as stand-alone pieces they made less of an impact on me compared to the richer, more three-dimensional portraits we get in the linked stories. Taylor is proficient at narrative compression, a skill showcased in the shorter pieces, but he shines most, I think, when given the leisure to revisit characters and their interpersonal dynamics, usually from different vantage points, to apply additional layers of perspective to relationships we thought we understood on first sight.
Events in one story have repercussions, later on in the collection, in another. The effect is a bit like watching a chain reaction occurring in slow motion. By and large, the stories in Filthy Animals are patient and quiet — until they’re not. These stories are not flashy, there are no postmodern tricks, just a masterful grasp of pacing that gradually builds tension toward an inevitable eruption.
Reading the 11 stories, I found myself thinking of the painter Paul Cézanne. I thought of the way he would approach even the simplest of still-life subjects — a bowl of apples, say — with a meticulous, almost obsessive desire to render it as faithfully as possible. Taylor’s portraits exhibit the same kind of attention to quotidian detail, the same solidity and fullness and depth. Taylor is rarely content to allow one perspective to dominate in his writing. He considers his characters from multiple viewpoints, from all angles, meticulously layering brush stroke on brush stroke, returning, like Cézanne, to the same themes, the same dynamics, the same subjects, again and again.
Thomas Mar Wee is a writer, poet, and editor based in New York City. They hold a BA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. A chapbook of their poetry, “Generation Loss,” was recently awarded a University and College Poetry Prize by the Academy of American Poets. They are currently at work on their first novel.