Fans of Brandon Taylor’s Booker Prize–shortlisted debut “Real Life” will feel a sense of familiarity in his newest release, “Filthy Animals.” Much like that 2020 novel, “Filthy Animals” questions loneliness, trauma and intimacy at the intersection of mental health and personal suffering.
The short story collection opens with Lionel, a Black, queer graduate student who now spends his time at an unnamed Midwestern university proctoring exams. Lionel is reminiscent of Wallace, the protagonist of “Real Life,” a gay Black man from a small town in Alabama pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry at a similar Midwestern university.
“Taylor knows that Wallace sounds a lot like him,” a New York Times writer wrote last year. “Both are Black gay scientists. Both are migrants to the Midwest by way of Alabama. Both have had confusing trysts with straight men. (“My life, in some ways, is just a series of inappropriate encounters with heterosexual men,” Taylor joked.) And both have stood on the precipice of a scientific career and had to ask whether to walk back or leap.”
“Write what you know,” the saying goes, and both Wallace’s and Lionel’s stories feel painstakingly authentic. Taylor’s prose hums with energy, and the reading experience expands from a textual happening to an immersive experience.
When we meet Lionel he is recovering from a suicide attempt. To try to restore a sense of normalcy, he heads to a campus party thrown by someone referred to only as “the host.” It is here that Lionel meets Charles and Sophie, two dance students in an open relationship in which Lionel becomes entangled. While “Filthy Animals” is a short story collection, it is also, in part, the narrative of the threesome’s relationship, told in alternating perspectives over the course of 36 hours.
Lionel, Charles and Sophie intermingle in stand-alone stories that together share a sense of mutual concerns. Even further, each character is connected in some disparate way. There’s “Little Beast,” a story in which a nanny named Sylvia attempts to tame a wild little girl, who reminds her a little too much of herself. “She knows what it is like to be trapped inside a thing, a life,” Taylor writes. “It’s the kind of life Sylvia would like to live, but she knows it’s the kind of life that is impossible because the world can’t abide a raw woman.” (It is later discovered that Sylvia is the doctor of one of Charles’ dance classmates.)
“As Though That Were Love” is a story that thrives on empty space and things not said. More is learned from looking between the lines of dialogue. “Filthy Animals,” the title story, follows Milton, a young man leaving soon for an educational enrichment program. He and his friend Nolan head out to a party, and dark, dirty antics ensue. The collection is one of people trying to navigate intimacy, desire, cruelty and alienation.
Along with the overarching story, one rife with so much tension and discomfort it leaps from the page, you get snippets into the lives of an intriguing set of characters. They are woven together with a gossamer of connectivity in a “six degrees of separation” type of way. “Filthy Animals” touches on the soft underbelly of human existence, showing the animalistic qualities we all share. How we all struggle to make meaningful connections, have a sense of dignity and deal with pain. Taylor can write beyond the story of a lone Black man in academia. Like “Real Life,” “Filthy Animals” is written almost in real time, taking place over hours or days and transforming the mundane aspects of life into something meaningful.
“Filthy Animals” could read as a single story. Yet, Taylor chose not to write another novel. And that is where the magic lies in “Filthy Animals.” That intention should be noted.