While it's something of a faux pas to refer to another review in a review, I read some of Laura Miller's review of Brandon Taylor's new novel in Slate before reading the novel. I found it baffling then, and even more baffling after finishing The Late Americans. Miller's point--much maligned and hot-take'd on social media when it was published--is that Taylor is funny and scathing on social media in ways that he is not in his writing. Why can't his submissions to capital-L Literature--careful and crafted and thorough--be more like his emissions--dashed off, personal, casually erudite--on lowercase-s social media? A take as wrongheaded as it was full throated, which would be right at home in Taylor's funny and photorealistic portrayals of writing workshops in the book.
What's most confounding about Miller's stance on the novel, beyond the stance's very existence, is that it's way off. The Late Americans is full of laughs. Taylor relishes in the postures of politics and art and class, letting his characters speak freely in such a way that might veer close to satire if it weren't spot on. But what might confuse some readers or reviewers is that the book is both very funny and very serious. Taylor writes his characters with such intimacy that it's impossible to tell who, if anyone, he's sending up. Really, all his depictions are unflattering and fair. But caring, too. In truth, we are all of us annoying and we are all, in our way, human and valid. Whose side you take will depend on your own prejudices, overlooking the flaws in some, while narrowing in on and unforgiving those in others. What or who you laugh at is more about you, less about Taylor.
The novel takes place at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where Taylor himself attended. Instead of lambasting fiction writers, though, Taylor focuses on poets. Taylor has said he did this to avoid the ire of fellow fiction writers, but his choice of poets I think serves the book better. Fiction, in its most popular iterations, still has an air of utility in our culture, while poetry--grad school-level poetry, at least--has mostly been written off as frivolous in the way real art is. In a novel that pits "art" against "real life," something as useless as it is essential is the only form that will do.
Early in the novel, potential villain Seamus closes out that day's workshop with an ungenerous critique of a classmate's poem. With his free afternoon, he tries to pick up a few extra hours at his job in the kitchen of a hospice. Unlike most of those classmates, Seamus doesn't come from money. Deftly, Taylor ties the knot of The Late Americans from the jump. Art and work, rich and poor, life and death: it all coexists in a snarl here. For someone so serious about his writing, Seamus has no illusions about its tangible worth when compared to a paying job. "He loved poetry but couldn't square it with the essentials of life."
But as Seamus considers the activities available at the hospice--outdoor work, readying and tending a garden--and then the joy he receives from cooking, the importance, even relevance of poetry becomes clear. If something makes life temporarily more lovely, if you can lose yourself in something that transcends mortality, such as poetry, or cooking, or gardening, or sex, then it matters. It's a beautiful, early revelation that Taylor will continue to challenge throughout the course of the novel, through a rich cast of characters.
Frivolity and utility, old and new forms, past and present, humour and earnestness, students and townies: polar opposites circle and flirt in The Late Americans, and join and separate, and rend again. There's such varied ideas and characters in The Late Americans, all rendered with equal attention and acumen, that it's the roaring antithesis of social media, which fosters the exact sort of oversimplification that Taylor eschews and, frankly, smashes to bits here.