By Alan Bissett
We hear a great deal in the publishing world about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which seemingly every ambitious young scribe in the U.S. is clamouring to enter. So prestigious is it, that a season of the hipster 2010s TV series Girls was devoted to its main character, Hannah Vorvath, played by Lena Dunham, struggling to make it there.
Brandon Taylor is one of the Workshop’s latest literary stars, having been both its Arts Fellow and a Booker Prize short-listee for his debut novel, Real Life. But in this sophomore effort, The Late Americans, Taylor has made his subject Iowa itself, both town and gown, looking around the campus with a critical eye, and then outside, to the middle- and working-class Iowans who’ve likely never featured in the thoughts, let alone the fiction, of any other Workshop writer. Taylor asks how these two Iowas – the arty and the earthy – interact with and inform each other, in ways that are sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, but always human.
We open to a scene that may elicit either eye-rolls or chuckles, depending on one’s view of currently-prevailing attitudes in the arts. An argument erupts in a Creative Writing seminar about confessional literature, and we are invited to sympathise with the rebellious Seamus, who mocks young poets betrothed to fashionable ideas about identity politics and foisting their trauma upon the reader.
It’s quite the opening gambit – must we suffer another writer writing about writers? – possibly alienating more than it will attract. It at least lets us know what we’re in for. Throughout the novel, Creative Writing and Dance students ponder their art – its purpose, what it demands of them, where it’s all leading – which will fascinate those who hope to create things for a living, but might feel like navel-gazing to others.
Were this all The Late Americans does, though, even this reviewer would be out. There’s only so much anyone can take of poets interrogating ‘truth’ and dancers complaining about the toll on their bodies. As though sensing that neither life nor Iowa begin and end with the self-flagellation of artists, however well-articulated, Taylor brings the reader up sharply when Seamus encounters a sexual menace in the shape of Bert, whose trucker cap and scuzzy beard spell a special kind of Iowan contempt for the likes of poets.
We are soon thrust into a world where sex, power and economics press (mainly but not exclusively) upon the various gay men – dance students, abattoir workers and coffee shop baristas – who populate Iowa, both city and University, as Taylor coolly examines the landscape of the heart as well as the art.
The structure of the novel is one that has become rather commonplace in contemporary fiction, eschewing such old-fashioned conceits as ‘plot’ for a series of chapters focusing on a different character, demonstrating how all intertwine in some kind of milieu or societal panorama (see also: Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other).
Fyodor and Timo, rife with class tensions, are pulling apart from each other. Ivan turns to making solo porn films to pay the bills. Noah and Bert build sheds together, in between arguing about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Iowa. Bea gives swimming lessons and ruminates upon her youth. Fatima is bullied by one of her fellow dancers. These stories occasionally intrude and place pressure upon each other. The characters do a lot of thinking. That’s as far as it goes in terms of narrative, yet somehow – perhaps because Taylor has such a confident sense of character – it works.
This is because if you are going to jettison story then you better have a highly-attuned style to compensate – and, luckily, Taylor does. His sentences are an absolute joy to read – rhythmic, lively and surprising. The man simply does not know how to do solely functional description, his imagery latching onto the mind with precision.
When a character is stuck for something to say he “slid down the slick, inner surface of himself like a lizard in a glass”. When another blurts out something stupid it is because of a “civic inattentiveness of the soul”. Another “didn’t seek out sex so much as it came up to him like an anxious dog in need of affection.” Every page, every paragraph, is ripe with such brilliance.
Unlike many writers, Taylor also never forgets that humans have to make a living, ensuring that the working days of his characters are explored in as much detail as their personal relationships.
It all adds up to a rounded, many-dimensional view of the people who inhabit this rural backwater, and as such The Late Americans will go from a detailed description of a day’s manual labour to a forensic dissection of the dancer’s art to an explicit gay sex scene. There’s an awful lot of oral sex and masturbation (semen is spilled all over the place in this novel), but equally there are moments of pure, ethereal poetry, as Taylor’s dissatisfied Late Americans contemplate what their lives and relationships have become.
The novel, as might be expected from its title, is about capitalism. But it never becomes didactic. We feel the weight of money – or rather its crushing absence – push down upon each character in turn, confusing them and thwarting their purpose.
Taylor is interested in the ways that penury distorts both the production of art and the nature of sexual relations. It’s not a novel that’s seeking converts to socialism, however, rather one that plainly shows the damage done and the manner in which human beings simply get on with things, attempting to pick their hopes and dreams off the floor somehow in the face of financial stress. Herein lies its power.
The Late Americans might not be what one would call a riveting experience, as perhaps indicated from a novel with a title so grandiloquent, so assuredly of an era. What it is, though, is beautifully rendered, like the sculpted body of one of the dancers upon which Taylor so often lingers.
About our contributor
Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and performer from Falkirk who now lives in Renfrewshire. He is most well-known for his debut novel Boyracers (2001) and his trilogy of ‘one-woman shows’, The Moira Monologues (2009), More Moira Monologues (2017) and Moira in Lockdown (2022). He is the winner of a Fringe First (2017), a Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Writer of the Year award (2011), as well as numerous awards for the short film which he wrote and narrated, The Shutdown (2009). He has twice been shortlisted for Best New Play at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) and for a Scottish Arts Council Fiction of the Year Prize. In 2016 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Stirling for Outstanding Contribution to Scottish Culture and in 2019 presented a BBC documentary, Inside the Mind of Robert Burns. He is currently working on his fifth novel.