The Late Americans
(Riverhead Books, 2023)
Brandon Taylor has a lot to say about truth.
The characters in his new novel, The Late Americans, descend on Iowa City, home of the fabled University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program—an intentional setting for Taylor’s exploration of voyeurism, communication, and, yes, truth, in today’s America. In its opening, Taylor tosses the reader into a live workshop debate on the merits of poems that center trauma—its buried question being, “Whose voice is an authority? Whose experiences spur truth—yours or mine?”
The Late Americans follows in what could, at this point, be assumed as an established tradition of Taylor’s writing thus far. As with Taylor’s previously published works; Real Life, Taylor’s debut novel published in 2020, and Filthy Animals, a short story collection released in 2021; everyone is miserable in their relationships and everyone is anxious about the world. Taylor is unflinching in his portrayal of the dread that so often follows the conclusion of a FiveThirtyEight report or an NPR Politics Podcast episode (these are, after all, well-meaning, liberal millennials that Taylor is coloring). The backdrop of The Late Americans is set by the impacts of mass shootings, recession, and more.
Structured as a blend between Real Life’s traditional novelistic format, and Filthy Animals anthology-style collection, The Late Americans is chronicled through nine chapters, each from the point of view of a new narrator, all members of the same carousel of characters whose stories we are introduced to throughout the novel. There’s Seamus, the white poet who spends significant time in overflowing, existential diatribes against contemporary turns within the form that he feels have left him behind. Goran, the adopted Black child to a well-off white Midwestern family, struggles with an inherited sense of moral rigidity. Goran’s boyfriend, Ivan, is an MBA candidate from a working class background, unsure of his future and the debt that may come with it.
The narrators in The Late Americans all know one another, playing in a millennial, nihilistic game of six degrees of separation—open relationship overflowing into open relationship, intimate friendships colored by traumatic hookups, each interaction weaving new connections. Through the rotating cast of characters (Taylor certainly conveys just how familiar the queer scene in a small town can feel), The Late Americans chronicles these young people’s brawl for truth and understanding in their interpersonal relationships—the cost of their conquest being total collapse.
“You are not an easy person to be with. Maybe we’re just too different.”
While the rotation of narrators and varied specifics of why each relationship in the web is failing may be dizzying at times, it’s ultimately within the mess where Taylor is most successful. If there is a universal truth that Taylor asserts, it’s misunderstanding.
In an era defined by the easy spread of disinformation and stagnant polarization, these characters are not debating facts, but rather values. They’re on the same side—or so they’d say—though each claims an objective authority on what that means. Whether it’s approaches to poetry, sex work, or vegetarianism, these characters do not understand each other—and time after time, in a sequential cycle bookmarked by chapters beginning and ending, they blame one another for that disconnect. It’s not me who is limited by my experience; it’s you who’s veered away from the contract.
He had understood only his own private deprivation. And that what felt secure to him was what felt secure to everyone. That his values were the real values.
In their collisions, Taylor’s characters do not find a greater sense of empathy or understanding for one another—only deepened strife and a commitment to the argument. Taylor pulls back the curtain with each subsequent narration, elevating individual histories and providing personal context. There are absent parents, debilitating injuries, and the loss of relatives in these characters’ backgrounds. As readers, we understand that they’re all making sense of the world through the lens afforded to them; though we remain bitterly exhausted by their bickering.
It was the first time that Goran had ever said Ivan was right about something. It was nothing. A fleck of mercy. But it was, Ivan knew, his way of trying. To be better.
Taylor’s concluding feat is this: The Late Americans is not a story that serves to simply re-immerse us in the persisting discourse faced in our own lives. Taylor sees the babel as a tradition, and manages to turn the chaos into something beautiful.
Loving people was hard. It was difficult sometimes to believe that they were good. It was hard to know them. But that didn’t mean you could just go on without trying. [...] Love was more than the parts of it that were easy and pleasurable. Sometimes love was trying to understand.
There is value in the fight. What is worthy is that each misunderstanding, every argument, is rooted in another attempt at understanding—at love, Taylor would say. The characters in The Late Americans are not spiteful, despite their straining. They are not resigned, and they are not complacent. They each remain committed to the brawl. Committed to the language of truth-seeking. Committed to the act of falling.
The stars, he thought, had been watching him his whole life. They’d seen the whole thing go on and on. Him and the rest of all the people who had ever lived and ever would.
And as readers, the call to action is extended to us. We sit, enthralled by Taylor’s prose and immersed in his character’s stories, witnesses to the complexity of truth and its resistance against objectivity. We are offered, our gaze peering in from above, perspective. There are sides to take and stances to claim—but no villains. There can’t be.