The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor: book review

The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor

Overview: At the University of Iowa, a number of grad students across a variety of prestigious programs have their lives casually intersect and drift apart. From the tensions within an MFA poetry workshop to a painter that keeps surfacing between dancers and writers to the politics of which dancers were set up to chase their dreams, there are deep feelings and messy connections between these students reaching the end of their grad school journeys as well as those who inhabit the university town to build their permanent life. Aimlessly drifting, we follow glimpses of a broad cast's individual, quiet lives. Overall: 3.5 

Characters: 3 This book has an absolutely massive cast, which I'm not opposed to. It's a critique I see a lot for Kiley Reid's new book Come and Get It as well. I thought it was interesting that this trait in Reid's book didn't bother me, but in The Late Americans, I felt unable to keep track of all the players. I think it comes down to the fact that we never get close to any of the characters in this book, and they don't make clear, concrete connections with one another's lives either at all or until very late in the book. There's a distance to the writing and a lack of defined specificity that makes it hard to hold onto who these people are or remember their names with their attributes when someone is introduced on page 20 and not recalled until page 130. It's also hard to remember them in context as the characters run across various programs and romantic entanglements, so certain characters will randomly pop up in chapters led by characters they've never been related to before, and it's jarring to try to remember who they are from the first context we were introduced to them in. 

The image I kept coming back to while reading was that The Late Americans was a cool toned Monet painting where you can understand what's meant to be captured by the painting, but in that impressionistic style, you have to squint a little, and you'll never be sure of all the details. There's something moody and effective about it, but it's hard to achieve deep, detailed character work within that style. This is especially complicated when there are just so many characters being introduced at a near constant clip. To balance a large cast, I feel like the character composition needs to be drawn in better focus. 

Plot: 3 You all know I love no plot just vibes. I'm all for studies of mundane life captured in all their glorious wonder by a freeze frame. But I found myself yearning for an overarching sense of plot in these pages, and I felt utterly unsatisfied as a reader by the ending. 

The individual chapters and scenes are slow and quiet but have a life and momentum to them. There were plenty of passages that I felt utterly gripped by the world and desperate to know what happened next, but on the whole, there's very little that unites these scenes and characters together. There's nothing bigger that we're working towards except, maybe, an amorphous graduation date where Iowa City will no longer define the border of these characters' lives. The plot summary promises that these aimless wanderings into a massive number of people's lives will culminate in, "a moment of reckoning that leaves their lives irrevocably altered," but I'm still wondering where that is. I felt very little character growth from the handful of characters that we got to see all the way to the end. While maybe their bond had heightened or they'd thought about the world a tiny bit more from when they started, they felt largely unchanged and untouched by the events of the book. And so many of the characters we'd gotten to know on an intimate level were dropped unceremoniously along the way given no conclusion or indication of what became of them – like they were hardly even there despite spending 50 or 60 pages learning about their lives. 

I love when books mimic the pulse of life, but at the end of the day, they are also stories, and the work of writing a story is to take these mundane life moments and not only render them accurately or in a light that makes them seem important but also to make meaning out of them. I feel like we didn't get to know any of these characters thoroughly enough or see the spectrum of any of their journeys with enough attention to achieve that sense of ending satisfaction and completeness at the close of the novel. I was left wondering what happened to Seamus and his MFA group that open the novel but are mostly shoved by the wayside and some of the other characters that wander through but are discarded. This was a cool concept, and I love the idea of drawing together characters only united by a geographical place, but there has to be a moment that bonds the disparate threads and makes it clear why these people were chosen to discuss in the same book. That was never achieved. 

Writing: 4 Taken as a series of vignettes or short stories, I think this book is successful. The writing is beautiful, truly like a painting. And I respect Taylor's style of remove when illuminating ordinary life events. On a sentence level, this book does a great job at locating what it sets out to find. If I'd read certain chapters in isolation, they could've been five star short stories that have an ambiguous, uncertain feeling to them. I can see why Taylor is an award winning writer. This book just never comes together to offer what a novel promises, even in its most quiet, delicate form. 

From This Review:

Come and Get It review

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Green Dot review

March 2024 reading wrap up

Anita de Monte Laughs Last review

reread review: Beautiful World Where Are You


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