A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

Science/Fiction : The Real Life

I like the implication of such a title : The Real Life. So there would be a life that is not real? Not real enough? That was, at least, the question stuck in my head when I started reading this LabLit book from Brandon Taylor.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor | World Literature Today
The cover is full of genes!

First, I want to address a question that quite a few may ask themselves: what on Earth is LabLit? Laboratory Literature. To keep it simple, it is a novel genre that tells stories with a scientific part in it or a story that evolves in a laboratory setting. Not science-fiction, no! Actual science, a fair and realistic representation of it, the science of today (or whenever the book was written). In The Real Life, we follow the steps of a PhD candidate in an unnamed city of the USA. One more knowledgeable than me on US cities would be able to say which one it is, but not knowing did not bother me.

Now that this is out of the way, I will focus on the laboratory part of the story, not so much on the romantic story, which is quite interesting and well rounded. Mind you, I have read quite a few romances lately and some fell flat but I stuck with this one because of the descriptions, the really in depth writing about the feelings of the main character: Wallace. Of course, I also went on reading because of the laboratory part of the book which resonated with some parts of my own experience as a PhD candidate.

Brandon Taylor has a way of writing feelings that I have yet to see in any other book. It reads raw, granular, almost like diving into parts of the character that are too personal and scraping oneself on the rocks at the bottom of this emotion-filled pit. I enjoyed it, yet, I am relieved that I can read books that are a bit lighter. This precision is necessary in understanding what I thought the book was really great at doing: giving their actual complexity to the feelings.

The story begins on a Friday afternoon, a late Friday afternoon in the warm weather of a summer coming to an end. We are following Wallace (narrated in third person), a black PhD candidate in this biology graduate school. Right from the start, we know the odds were not in his favour:
Their class had been the first small one in quite some time, and the first in more than three decades to include a black person.

It is quite clear that Wallace is not at its best and something in the character reminded me of Evelyn in Eliza. The narrator explains to us that once more, Wallace’s experiment failed. Note here that I do not write Wallace failed his experiment but that the experiment failed. Wallace works with small worms, nematodes, and the plates where they grow have been contaminated. All of them. We learn it is not the first time he loses a full colony of a quite complex breeding scheme. Wallace feels down, rushed for more experiments, in need of something that works. This one frustration, if alone, could be minimal, but it just piles up on so many other “little” things. The Real Life is about these “little” things and how they pile up as the years doing research go by. It is about isolation, it is about racism, it is about unhealthy relationships, about friendship and more things. I will mostly focus on the laboratory related bits and pieces while not forgetting that it is also about the real life.

While Wallace thinks only about how much work it will mean to start the breeding of the nematodes back from the beginning, he comes closer to his friends. His friends, as it turns out, are his colleagues. Not colleagues working in the exact same lab, just fellow PhD candidates from the same graduate school. The whole story of the book will revolve around this circle of friends, this one bubble that exists only around the lab, the experiments and the hardships of a PhD. Amidst Miller, Cole, Emma, Yngve, there is one person that stands out: Vincent, Cole’s boyfriend. Vincent has nothing to do with academia (he is a lawyer). Vincent, even, serves as an outsider with a critical eye. Here is one of his best lines:
Anyway, there is more to life than your pipettes and epi tubes,” Vincent said evenly. “You’re all just playing at being adults with your plastic toys.

That one critic, that denial of adulthood, is actually quite interesting. What is even more is Wallace’s answer:
It is silly, isn’t it? Still being in school like this. I wonder sometimes, what am I doing here? I guess it’s not silly. Lots of people think that. But still, I think about what it might be like to leave. Do something else. Something real, as you say, Vincent.
I have to commend Brandon Taylor for capturing in just one awkward conversation the feeling many people starting in academia might have had. There is a ring of truth in many of the conversations, the impression that all the characters in the group of friends do not actually have a precise idea where they stand. It is a tale that extends beyond academia, of course, however this books captures this feeling of being lost to a degree that I can only admire.

Without going too much into details or spoilers, once Wallace says he wishes he could leave the PhD and start elsewhere, this triggers an unfortunate set of events. It challenges how his friends see each other, how they think of one another. Saying it, though, does not mean he actually quits, Wallace even goes to the lab over the week-end, a lab that is far from being empty… The overwork culture in academia is real, unrelenting and – I find – generally quite poorly addressed (which is not the case in this book).

Wallace is worked to the bone by his peers, by his supervisor and they keep pointing his mistakes and not his achievements, dangling the graduation in front of his eyes both as a possible reward and a threat of it being taken away from him. The problem, however, is the following – as said by Wallace when he talks to Cole:
“I don’t think I’ll leave,” Wallace says. “I don’t have any skills to live in the world.”
“Me either”
“But sometimes I’d like to live in it – in the world, I mean. I’d like to be out there with a real job, a real life.”

Wallace, during his (almost) five years of PhD, has not been taught what his skills are good for. He has been taught an academic job and nobody told him what he could do next! Well, some graduate schools do and that’s a good point, but I still think overall the end of PhD studies must feel like a dead end for so many, and Wallace and his friends are amongst those.

In the end, The Real Life helped me put words onto feelings I have had without actually knowing it, and it felt good. It really did. If you are or have been a PhD student, I am sure this book is for you. If you never were a PhD student, this book is a really good dive into the struggles of doctoral studies!