Filthy Animals is a collection of short stories by Brandon Taylor, the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Real Life. Real Life is about a Black, gay graduate student in a STEM discipline navigating his personal and professional life in a predominantly white, midwestern University town. Taylor drew upon his own experience as a graduate student in biochemistry at University of Wisconsin at Madison to provide a disturbingly real depiction of what it looks like to be “the only one” in multiple different settings that revolve around academia. As someone who has been in similar situations for nearly 35 years (gulp!) to say I resonated with multiple aspects of the novel is to put it much too mildly.
Filthy Animals is both a very similar and a very different book than Real Life. Firstly, it is a collection of loosely connected short stories instead of a novel. Also, both works are centered around the experiences of outsiders in familiar (at least to me, as a professor and dean) academic settings. However, in Filthy Animals the characters in each story change. The short collection (278 pages) consists of 11 stories; five of which (“Potluck,” “Flesh,” “Proctoring.” “Apartment,” and “Meat”) feature three recurring characters I would gladly read an entire book about. They are Charles, a white, muscular, apparently bisexual, twenty-something dancer; Lionel, a Black, gay, mathematics graduate student who struggles with mental health and self-harm ideations; and Sophie, a ethnically ambiguous, highly talented dancer who is in an open relationship with Charles. The stories where Sophie, Charles and Lionel appear are the most compelling in the collection as their foibles get revealed while they interact with each other in surprising ways.
The one-off stories have their own appeal as well. Taylor is almost always presenting characters who demonstrate the different ways one can be isolated or marginalized in society. In several of the stories the protagonist is damaged, injured or sick in some way. (They are often, but not always, gay.) For example, the titular story “Filthy Animals” is a rather disturbing tale about a somewhat feral group of teenage boys who apparently have nothing better to do than accost each other, using sex, violence and sexual violence as a means to relate to one another.
Overall, I think I was less engaged with Filthy Animals than with Real Life so I hope that Taylor returns to novel writing soon. This is not to say that one of the books is objectively “better” than the other. That said, I am glad to see someone with experiences and identities so similar to mine producing such well-received writing. I look forward to reading more of it.
Title: Filthy Animals.
Author: Brandon Taylor.
Length: 288 pages.
Publisher: Riverhead Books.
Date Published: June 22, 2021.
Date Read: December 27, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).