With (Riverhead, June 22), Brandon Taylor follows up his Booker Prize–shortlisted debut novel, , with a collection of stories that are searing and nuanced, collapsing dichotomies of love and pain, joy and death, humans and animals. A sequence of four interlocking stories follows Lionel, a Black queer graduate student in pure mathematics who was recently released from psychiatric care after a suicide attempt. In “Pot Luck,” Lionel lingers awkwardly at a dinner party when he meets Charles, a bisexual dancer who unexpectedly follows him home. This love affair, however, is nothing short of complicated: Charles is in a nonmonogamous relationship with Sophie, who attempts to befriend Lionel, though the intimacy among the three only heightens Lionel’s anxieties and self-doubt.
Love, throughout the collection, is a terrain fraught with complexity. The protagonist of “As Though That Were Love,” Hartjes, understands love through the prism of violence and self-protection, having taught his childhood dogs to fight and hunt mercilessly; the collection’s title story follows a rowdy cohort of teenage boys as they navigate the social sphere of their small suburban town. How do we reveal ourselves to others honestly and sincerely when our identities are so constricted by social norms? Who are we when we dare to extricate ourselves from these pre-fabricated identities? Taylor spoke to us about these themes over Zoom from his home in Iowa City; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One of the central concerns of Filthy Animals seems to be mental illness, which is examined from many different angles.
One of my fixations is certainly how we live in a society in relation to other people, and how we make our interior selves known to others, and what a fraught and complicated process it can be to communicate something true about yourself. I’m also interested in the ways that trying to communicate something true about yourself is often acted upon by these social scripts that we’re constantly performing without knowing we’re performing them. So the character [of] Lionel is someone who has become aware only recently that his entire life is circumscribed by these scripts, and he doesn’t know how to be an honest and earnest and forthright person in the face of what you’re supposed to say, do, or think about how your illness manifests. He feels that he’s always being dictated to. In some ways, he’s trying to figure out how to live in the world and not do harm to others, but he doesn’t know how to do that because the scripts seem to almost require us to maim each other socially and interpersonally. It feels almost impossible, then, to live in an honest way without harming other people, so part of the solution is to just accept that as part of the social contract.
There’s an intimate relationship between love and violence throughout these stories. In what ways would you say they’re inextricable?
When I wrote the book, I hadn’t yet developed a rigorous or coherent language around what it was I was so frustrated with in literature and in culture. What I realize now is that these stories come out of the impulse to point out the ways that we as a culture limit the language [we use] to think about something. There’s this presupposition that when you love someone, you’re going to treat them in certain ways, or you’re going to do certain things to protect them, to inoculate them. But that set of presuppositions ignores the fact there are people who come from incredibly difficult or violent backgrounds and still feel loved or supported by their families or their social systems. That looks so different from what the polite, so-called civilized American ideal of what a family should be. So what I’m trying to do is portray a character’s subjectivity, a character at odds with a culture that they don’t feel a part of.
The concept of the human animal is also crucial to the collection.
I’m deeply interested in the human animal. One of the ways that culture chooses to degrade people is to call them animals. I remember being a kid and my grandma being appalled by these country boys being rough and dirty and smelly and tracking mud into our house, and her calling us a bunch of dirty animals. Calling someone an animal is a way of stripping them of their humanity. What I’m interested in is taking this idea and turning it inside out and pointing out the ways that we’re all animals. We all have parts of us that are feral. I think some stories in the book point to this feral nature as a thing to be feared, but there are others that view that as the true state. Becoming animalistic is part of being in tune with oneself.
This speaks really directly to the story “Little Beast,” in which a 20-something babysitter is overcome by the wildness of the little children she’s looking after.
Growing up I had a very rural childhood. I always associate childhood with playing under the pine trees and sloshing through the creek and throwing rocks into the pond. There’s this magical period when children just feel like life incarnate, in part because we haven’t taught them the rules of society. They’re alive and touching everything and putting things in their mouths—behaving in ways that are just pure sensation. In that story, I wanted to capture what it’s like to witness a child on the precipice of having to shed that wildness and enter the docility of living in the world. The little girl has a twin brother, and they’re White children; that little White boy is going to go off and do whatever he wants, but that little girl is going to have her identity constructed for her and is then going to be shoved into it like an ill-fitting support garment. The protagonist, Sylvia, is on the edge of some awful change in her life and sees that this little girl is about to be made docile. What do you do when you’re aware of the horrors of socially constructed gender norms?
There’s also this way that illness seem to put pressure on these characters and their desires. “Mass” and “What Made You Made Them,” for instance,” are about characters dealing with terminal illness.
A big change that happened after the initial drafts of these stories was that I had several health crises, starting in 2019, that forced me to really think about my body. I went from writing about the body being out of control as an external phenomenon to it being visceral and embodied. When I went back to the stories, I had to look very deeply at the body as the source of our earthly experience. But what happens when the body goes awry or begins to fluctuate in ways you can’t control? How does it dovetail with other difficult things in your life? So in “What Made You Made Them,” I wanted to write a story that is about much more than someone dying of cancer. That story is ultimately about family and legacy and the body betraying itself, all complicated by and put under pressure [by] the protagonist’s increasing awareness of her mortality. I’m a writer who’s deeply rooted in the body. I don’t know how to write any other way.
Roberto Rodriguez is a Poe-Faulkner Fellow in Fiction at the University of Virginia.