Discover more from The Midwest Creative
The Coarse Texture of Every Reality
My thoughts on The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
The Midwest Creative is a passion project borne out of my love for my home and my sincere belief that the Midwest deserves our love, care, and investment. I will sing the praises of the creative community in this region until my last breath. But I need your help to reach as many people as I can.
If you enjoy my work, I would be honored if you could give it a like and share it with your community. Your praise helps me reach even more artists and to create a deeper, more connected community. Upgrading your subscription to paid will provide me with the resources to lift up creatives and they’re important work across the Midwest. I appreciate your support in any shape or form.
The Midwest Creative is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“There was a kind of tumble and turbulence to light when she looked into her dioramas, and it was that coarse texture of reality that matched her own experience of the world. But that was how everyone felt when they looked back at something they had made—every creation was just a silly, slightly deformed inward reflection.” Brandon Taylor, The Late Americans
With 90+ degree heat beating down my back, a felt blanket sprawled under me, and fifteen other girls chattering around me, I found out I was accepted to the University of Iowa to study English. It was a Saturday afternoon in Iowa and I was spending it the same way I spent the summer weekends nearly my entire life—at a ball diamond, cornfields lining the outfield and a rumbling highway nearby.
The dichotomy of my surroundings at the time—the intensity of small town life and the poignant lack of belonging I felt—with the place I’d soon end up was incredibly lost on me. I had no inkling of the artistic merit of my future school. I knew Iowa City was bigger than my hometown. I knew the students there came from all over the world and that the hospital that cared for my chronic illness was nearby and that the writing program was, you know, pretty good (LOL). But I also thought it was still, simply, Iowa, and that boring was never far from arm’s reach.
Almost nine years after reading that email in between my softball games, The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor felt like a walk down the Ped Mall, a dip back into the subtly arrogance of undergrad creative writing workshops, and a stark reminder that complexity exists in every corner of the Earth that boredom exists, too.
Taylor’s novel is set on the University of Iowa campus, following a loosely connected group of graduate students. Through his prose I could follow the paths I walked as an undergraduate, the art buildings dotting the Iowa River, the street where Joe’s Place waited for me on a Saturday night, the 1980s time capsule of the English-Philosophy Building.
Resembling more a book of short stories than a novel, each chapter of The Late Americans follows a character studying to find themselves an avenue out of themselves — whether that be finance, poetry, or the mechanism of destruction into which their personal relationships have developed.
A braided narrative like this, however loose, has the power to take you into every corner of a world and show you the most honest version of experience. These characters see each other as cruel, diminishing, confusing, ridiculous, woefully ignorant, a huge asshole. These characters also see themselves as persecuted, afflicted, overlooked, underappreciated, misunderstood, brilliant. Every one of them is right.
In a recent interview in Hero Magazine, Taylor was asked why he tends to give his characters Eastern European names. He described the incredulity of his white grad school classmates when they would realize his characters were Black; they’d claim he was willfully concealing the race of his characters. What they were searching for were explicit descriptions of a character’s skin color, while Taylor focused on the specific details that comprised his Black characters’ lives. He was busy creating their humanity while his classmates were busy searching for ways to other them.
In The Late Americans, we meet Timo, Goran, Fyodor, Hartjes. It is not their skin color that sets them apart, nor is it their names. It’s in the specific ways they are experiencing a terrifying, unwieldy growth in a place they have always kept at a healthy distance.
There’s a tension in each character’s voice that elicits the familiar tension of tip-toeing into the “adult” world. The fear of confining one’s self to a box that would never fit, the distress of instability, the jealousy borne of assumption that the classmate next to you has everything figured out. It’s an all-too-familiar space.
The life of this novel lies in how these tensions and dramatics come to fruition in a place like Iowa City, such a small, overwhelmingly white city with issue its liberal reputation will never fix. Taylor’s characters are almost entirely queer, several of them people of color, and they range in socioeconomic status. They are artists and logicians and brave and self-centered and scared. They are people who feel unkept by the place they’ve lived in, and they are people who do not know how to leave properly.
And yet these distinct, intricate characters all gather under the slate-gray Iowa sky. They shiver in the bitter wind. They groan in dismay when the early warm spring temperatures revert back to the harshness of winter. They eat fruit from the Bread Garden and walk past loud bars in the Ped Mall and experience Iowa City in so many ways that I experienced it and yet live such deeply dissimilar lives than I have.
That’s what draws me in to a novel like The Late Americans. I imagine someone in New York City might scoff at my intrigue. It’s not that interesting to learn that the people living near you are all living their own versions of the setting, they would say as they roll their eyes. And honestly, they’re right.
But when you grow up in such a homogenous place, and you rarely get to consume art that shares its rich texture, it’s easy to dismiss those simple details of your neighbor’s humanity as mundanity. You start to assume the story of your home, predicting an unfair future and erasing a complex past. We grow ignorant to how much each story can matter. Our world places value on those stories with the most readers and we rarely give everyone the same opportunity.
Brandon Taylor, regardless of his own personal experience here, gave Iowa City the opportunity to share how complicated it can be. He gave it the space to be bad and not let that cast a pall on his characters. He offered it as a space where creativity and love and heartbreak can thrive. He reminded me that its coarse texture of reality is just as valid as anywhere else.
The Midwest Creative is a proud member of the Iowa Writers Collaborative. Please consider a subscription to my colleagues’ work to support storytelling across the state of Iowa. All of these authors provide content for free, with paid subscription options. Pick one or more, and help sustain this movement.