By George Kowalik
This article will consider two American novels published in 2020: Percival Everett’s Telephone and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, through the lens of Rachel Greenwald Smith’s concept of the “Affective Turn,” which “chronologically coincides with the end of the postmodernism debates” (Smith, 424). Stylistically, these two novels are quite different, and I will discuss them individually as well as unpack their similarities, examining their mutual relevance to an affective renewal in contemporary fiction. Taylor’s novel appears to be written in a realist mode whereas Everett’s complicates and experiments with the possibilities of realism by engaging with ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ framework. Taylor’s narrative focuses on the interactions of young adults in a university social circle, while Everett’s centres on the domestic life of a nuclear family. Real Life is about isolation and grief following the death of a father, while Telephone primarily involves the impending loss of a daughter. Both novels are about performativity and authenticity and the desire to extract meaning from the mundane, the desire to feel. Both can also be categorised as campus novels, and they are written by and about African Americans but are not reducible to these labels or categories. These novels capture consciousness moving through the world and are defined by affective breakdowns – the struggle for sincerity and the failure of feelings – which, as this article will suggest, speak for broader questions surrounding post-postmodernism and the affective turn.
Critical discourse often suggests that postwar experimental fiction has been replaced by the revamped social realist novel, therefore ending twentieth century “postmodernism debates” only for them to be superseded by debates about what comes next, which has influenced criticism from the 1990s to the present day. As Smith claims, the “Turn” that has come with this post-postmodern moment offers a “corrective or counter to postmodernist suspicion towards subjective emotion” and helps alleviate the problem of “being estranged by the performative distance of postmodernist prose” (424, 438). This is a turn, then, towards affective potential but also towards literary constructions of post-postmodern sincerity and humanism. Focusing on two novels published thirty years after this turn conceivably first took place, novels which seem to both evidence and internalise the turn, it is notable how the specific theme of scientific research in Telephone and Real Life exposes the reduction of affect within the academic institution, which after all was where literary postmodernism was popularised. That is, Smith’s suggestions of a “general critical consensus that postmodernist literature tends to be tonally – and therefore affectively – cold” (423) can be applied to Everett and Taylor’s characterisations of STEM institutions, focalised by the experiences of Professor Zach Wells in Telephone and graduate student Wallace in Real Life. Through their narratives, these two novels actively stage contemporary fiction’s affective turn rather than simply being examples of it. “Cold” could be considered as the antonym of the earnest self-consciousness that comes with works associated with the ‘New Sincerity’ (an adjacent term to post-postmodernism, even if it has a different definition) such as the 1990s and 2000s work of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. And yet, coldness is never quite relinquished by the characters of White Teeth (2000) or Infinite Jest (1996), who like Everett and Taylor’s characters must compete with their ability to be affective (that is, to express feelings and to articulate emotions, however imperfect both may be) rather than simply achieving this, as determined by their institutional surroundings. Coldness itself could be considered as an affective state, but it is challenged by Smith and Wallace’s characters in these novels, who are impeded by the maximalist and hyper-conscious tendencies of postmodern life but do reach a warmer, more humanist affective state. Everett and Taylor’s characters, meanwhile, are held back in their desires to reach this affective state by the equally restrictive codes and rhythms of scientific study programmes.
The most recent entry, in a catalogue of work that includes over thirty books of fiction and poetry in almost forty years, Everett’s Telephone uses a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ (CYOA) model to focalise the narrative perspective: “So often stories begin at their ends. The truth was, I didn’t know which end was the beginning or whether the middle was in the true middle or nearer to that end or the other” (Everett 10). The protagonist Zach Wells, a “geologist-slash-paleobiologist” (3), is defined by shortcomings, incapability, and an insatiable desire to live affectively and meaningfully despite being incarcerated in a novel whose three unique published editions emphasise his lack of agency. Zach’s helplessness in being able to do anything about his daughter’s rare medical condition is the constant that afflicts him across the story’s different versions. Like in Real Life, the death of a father happens off-page – “My father was an English professor. When I was a kid, I found him after he killed himself. I used to think he committed suicide because he didn’t get tenure” (98) – but it is the future loss of Zach’s daughter that drives Everett’s novel, the foresight that it will happen despite the unknown time and date. As Matthew McKnight puts it, in this, Everett’s “social novel,” the “only difference between clarity and confusion that matters is what you do with it”(n.p.).
In an article on the CYOA phenomenon in the twentieth century, Eli Cook emphasised something similar regarding reader authority and control: “the incredible success of solely text-based CYOA books stemmed largely from the cultural ascent of individual market choice to the heart of American notions of agency, liberty, subjectivity and selfhood” (1). Cook’s idea resonates if we consider Telephone as a process of internalising these conditions of neoliberal experience, but where the genre may sometimes allow “authors to quickly gesture at an assortment of creative, provocative, fun and even existential philosophical ideas or scientific theories without ever really developing a plot or characters around them” (3). Everett does the antithesis, highlighting the importance of affect in a more urgent, more serious use of CYOA. It is important to remember that his novel takes what is often a mode of children’s fiction and recalibrates it for use with an adult readership. As Cook suggests, the bottom line of CYOA structures is that “while the reader” is “indeed offered unprecedented interactive control by making a series of choices which determined the multiple endings he or she would reach, all the possible paths he or she could go down had been carefully chosen, designed and planned out by the authors” (23). Despite aspiring towards affective connections with his place of work and his family (his daughter Sarah but also wife Meg, “a college teacher too […] a poet” (Everett, 190)), Zach’s powerlessness is compounded by the narrative conditions of the story he is part of, which moderate and limit him as significantly as the rules of Everett’s choice of genre do. CYOA poses an explicit challenge for the cultural gesture of turning towards affect, which Zach experiences on the micro level of the specific narrative he finds himself in.
In this way, genre and narrative but also character and reader are interlinked in the Telephone reading experience. Cook’s article discusses how “despite the supposed free choices given to the reader, almost all of the CYOA books read eerily the same. Fantastical adventures in which individualistic, ambitious, heteronormative middle-class white boys must take high-risk decisions” (26), which carries particular resonance if we frame Everett’s engagement with CYOA with his career interest in the tension between literary experimentalism and sincerity, between playing with form and discussing the seriousness of racial inequality. The CYOA genre’s components of ramification and consequence are heightened when incarceration and powerlessness are the character’s experience anyway, not just due to their place within a CYOA book.For Zach, this experience is as much a product of racial prejudice as it is of the limitations of the university system, which his position within never helps, academia being an arena of communication where “Language was [always] getting in the way” (161), where rhetoric, irony, and rehearsed linguistics are the only ways to speak to others. These obstacles are best captured in Zach’s meetings with Hilary Gill, an assistant professor at the same university as him. Their early conversations are dry and matter of fact, dominated by topics such as tenure, grants, and publications: ““Where does your fieldwork stand? What kind of shape is that in?” / “I have a lot of data.” Always a bad answer” (18). Just over halfway through the novel, Hilary fails to get tenure and, concluding that “I’m simply not cut out for academia” (129), dies by suicide. Her death is abrupt and happens within Everett’s pages, unlike Zach’s daughter’s whose is a certainty by the end of Telephone even if we don’t read the pages describing her final moments.
Like his daughter’s future death – presented in the novel’s present tense as “the process of her dying” (184) – Hilary’s suicide allows Zach to learn more about himself, specifically relating to his own position in academia. His conversations with Hilary highlight an academic world that is unreliable by design; the conversations draw on rehearsed phrases and institutionalised rhetoric, stalling the process of granting Zach the sincerity he seeks. This process is undermined by the unreliability and inauthenticity of academic conversation, which is only amplified due to the colour of Zach’s skin and the necessary codes he must live by in order to stay in work. This aspirational sincerity gains traction with the affective turn that Rachel Greenwald Smith proclaims a vital need to attend to, both on the level of fictional narrative and published novel. Zach Wells’ daughter Sarah cannot be saved, and her father’s wealth of experience and knowledge remains a redundant tool rather than an effective one, which as the novel demonstrates would be more achievable if it was an affective one. Zach’s scientific prowess is impressive in theory, but like the insincere, mechanical conversations had within academic walls in practice it offers nothing, which determines his inability to know what to do to save his daughter’s life.
The idea that these affective struggles are given a fitting stage in the academic institution defines Telephone as much as it does Everett’s other works – Erasure (2001), American Desert (2004), or I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), for example – but also invites comparisons with Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. Taylor’s novel would perhaps be impulsively positioned at the opposite end of a realist-experimental spectrum to Telephone, despite the evidence that it centralises similar themes of sincerity and seriousness (and the difficulty in achieving and holding on to both). Real Life dramatises a similar anxiety of choice to Telephone, but this manifests in Taylor’s novel as an internal character struggle rather than being an anxiety that is replicated formally, as is the case in Everett’s CYOA novel. Real Life focuses on the experiences of Wallace: a gay, black PhD student grieving the death of his father while enrolled in a biochemistry programme at a predominantly straight white university in a Midwestern town. He is at a different stage on the career path to Everett’s washed-up academics Zach Wells, Ted Street (from American Desert), and Monk Ellison (Erasure), but grapples with a comparable desire to be affectively responsive in an environment encouraging the opposite. With this desire comes an intention of holding on to “real life” despite the confinement to the academic stage: an environment that as shown in the novel can often be shut off from affective constructions of the real, the authentic, the sincere.
Wallace’s character appeals to Smith’s affective turn because he embodies the retrieval of subjective emotion. Wallace persists in his intention of graduating with more than just a degree, of reassimilating into “real life,” which becomes a refrain in Taylor’s novel – as Wallace tells his friend Cole, “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”(132). At later points in Taylor’s novel, Wallace discusses “people going about their lives, shopping and eating, laughing and arguing, doing what people in the world do” as “real life” (243), and what “he and his friends call real people; that is, locals who are not affiliated with the university” (261). His education is therefore an affective process, resistant to students around him who embrace the pursuit (and adopt the rhetoric of) intellect and knowledge more unequivocally. Wallace’s turn towards affect is narrower than Zach Wells’ because Wallace specifically aspires towards a truthful version of the “real”, which he must do alone and by cutting off others around him rather than depending on them, unlike Zach’s affective connections with his wife and daughter. Wallace does not occupy a perfect or necessarily superior state of realness, but by the end of the novel he has at least managed to relinquish the artifice and performativity that those around him at the university are still limited by.
His education, put simply, is not to be confined to the arena of education. Fellow students Cole and Yngve exemplify the opposite, when they parrot the cohort mantra “New year, new data” (22), as does the character Soo-yin, who “lives in the small lab among the chemical reagents and the tissue culture closet […] Wallace once found her there, like stumbling upon a spirit in a myth” (63). Taylor’s recent collection Filthy Animals (2021) touches on the university’s affective limitations in opening story “Potluck”: “he [Lionel] and every other graduate student depended on the currency of their university affiliations to get by in conversations. As though academia were a satellite constantly pinging, letting him know who and where he was” (Taylor, 9). Lionel reappears in many of the book’s other stories, such as “Proctoring,” in which Taylor’s protagonist describes himself as “being moved around a chessboard he couldn’t see” and his “graduate education” as “a pawn passed between two egos” (105).
Many of Filthy Animals’ characters draw parallels and resonate with Wallace in Real Life, who is grounded by a select few of the positive influences surrounding him, which help to ensure that he does not end up like the obsessed (or possessed) colleagues so far removed from “real life.” Vincent is one of these positive influences, a friend who tells him that “there is more to life than your pipettes and epi tubes,” that Wallace and the others are “all just playing at being adults with your plastic toys” (25). Dana is another, whose shouting match with Wallace a little later in the novel leads to the epiphany that, especially since the death of his father, he has been putting all his “precious little time into this lab, and into these dumb little experiments that don’t matter” (94). In the closing stages of Real Life, Wallace’s escape from this restrictive lifestyle and emotional register manifests verbally, where he progresses from clinical and technical language to something more ostensibly real and human within one line of dialogue. After everything, he asks himself the question “what has been hard? Specificity. Particularity. Ascertain. Navigate. What to say? How to speak. ‘But I’m alive’” (264). Alongside his alienation from the people around him, Wallace struggles to grieve for a father who sexually abused him growing up. This grieving process (or lack of) is made more difficult by the academic atmosphere’s stifling lack of space for this kind of feeling and the necessary affective responses that come with it, which is only heightened by Wallace’s choice of faculty and subject area, and the specific expectations of cold, hard data that comes with STEM research (as with Everett’s Zach Wells). The impact of Wallace’s suppressed grief ranges from platitudinous (“sympathy was a kind of ventriloquism”) to more harmful (“that ugly, frothing spectacle of public mourning” – 34).
The opening gambit of Telephone highlights how Everett’s novel resists similar anti-affective gestures, a resistance which is enhanced by the CYOA framework. This resistance does not waver throughout the novel, after springing into life with a declaration from a then unnamed narrator that might well speak for Everett himself: “People, and by people I mean them, never look for truth, they look for satisfaction. There is nothing worse, certain painful and deadly diseases notwithstanding, than an unsatisfactory, piss-poor truth, whereas a satisfactory lie is all too easy to accept, even embrace, get cozy with” (3). For all his fiction’s “satisfactory” and playful deception, its crux is precisely the “truth” his characters live holding onto, pertaining to the experience of being African American and the entitlement to existential equality that should not be diminished by the colour of these characters’ skin, in academia or anywhere. Comparable to Taylor’s “real” but not occupying the same realist framework, this “truth” is what we are left with after Everett’s experimental stylistics deliberately exhaust themselves, at the end of his language games. We are left with this in Telephone, but also in Erasure, his 2021 novel The Trees,and so many of Everett’s other novels that do not tell their stories through CYOA.
In a piece for The Telegraph last year, Taylor reflected on the legacy of Everett’s earlier novel Erasure.He calls Erasure “Everett’s sublime, satirical novel of ideas” and wrote an introduction for its twentieth anniversary edition, which emphasised the importance of Everett’s work to him (Taylor n.p.). Taylor posited that Everett “isn’t so much interested in humanising the black experience, as has often been said of certain novels in the tradition, as it is in drawing attention to the absurdities that attend the inherent doubleness of black literature. A doubleness that comes, in part, from knowing that one must perform for an external white gaze,” and that his works “capture the black experience – not so much in events, but in the experience of a black consciousness moving through the world, through thought” (n.p.). Taylor’s own work explores this doubleness. By close reading the characterisations of Zach and Wallace, this article has suggested that their experiences of loss and the obstacles posed to them as African Americans within academia invite expansion (and suggest the possible future direction) of Smith’s affective turn, due to the initial desensitisation and then affective renewal that come with these two forms of oppression. A state of affective breakdown defines Everett and Taylor’s narratives, which engage with the prospect of post-postmodern sincerity by displaying a struggle to be sincere, an initial failure to feel. These obstacles manifest as Zach’s search for “truth” and Wallace’s intentions of becoming “real”, which are both inextricably tied to affective impediment, which Everett and Taylor stage via their protagonist’s relationship to the institution they work in. To move “through the world, through thought” is fundamentally a motion determined by affect and feeling, and the rejection of performance “for an external white gaze” is precisely how these novels ultimately hold on to both, as a means for their protagonists to keep on moving as real, authentic, sincere human beings.
George Kowalik, “‘New year, new data’: Percival Everett’s Telephone, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and the Future of the ‘Affective Turn’,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 1, n.pag. Web 29 April 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.04
About the Author
George Kowalik is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at King’s College London, working on contemporary Anglo-American fiction and the distinction between ‘postmodernism’ and ‘post-postmodernism’ in the work of Percival Everett, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace. He is a graduate of the University of Reading, Co-editor at King’s English, Assistant Editor at Coastal Shelf, and a short fiction and culture writer. He can be found on Twitter at @kowalik_george.
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McKnight, Matthew. “Without a Reader: Percival Everett’s Parables for Modern Living.” The Baffler, vol. 55, 2021, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/without-a-reader-mcknight.
Smith, Rachel Greenwald. “Postmodernism and the Affective Turn.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 57, no. 3/4, 2011, 423–446.
Taylor, Brandon. Filthy Animals. Riverhead Books, 2021.
—. “Like Which Nut or Shade of Coffee?’: How Not to Write About Race.” Telegraph, 7 August 2021. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/like-nut-shade-coffee-not-write-race/.
—. Real Life. Riverhead Books, 2020.