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Filthy Animals: Internal states of unrest illuminated

Brandon Taylor’s short stories focus on characters who are sincere not sentimental

Filthy Animals
Filthy Animals
Author: Brandon Taylor
ISBN-13: 978-1911547983
Publisher: Daunt Books
Guideline Price: £9.99

“If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own” (John 15:19) reads the epigraph of Brandon Taylor’s first short-story collection. Lionel, the central character of the linked stories that form the backbone of the book, most often does not feel loved by the world. A black queer man, he bears some resemblance to Wallace, the protagonist of Taylor’s 2020 Booker-shortlisted novel Real Life. Both men struggle to feel like they belong in the predominantly white milieu of academia.

A promising mathematician, Lionel has put his doctoral studies on hold following in-patient treatment following a suicide attempt. At a potluck dinner shortly after being discharged from the hospital after another close call, he meets Charles and Sophie, two dancers in an open relationship. Narrated in a close third person that shifts points of view, every other story (demarcated by one-word titles such as Flesh) involves the trio’s love triangle. Charles “was good-looking, in a way that seemed incongruous with ordinary life,” notes Lionel. “But he looked pained, too. All that body had cost him something.”

The human body proves fickle throughout the stories in Filthy Animals. Health is not a given, even among the young. The cost of Charles’s physique turns out to be a knee injury that threatens to end his dance career. Alek, one of his classmates, suffers from a persistent cough. “The body is full of odd turns,” his doctor tells him. When a menacing mass is discovered on his lungs, Alek reaches out to his estranged brothers. Elsewhere, a young woman with inoperable cancer hopes to reconcile her brother with their grandfather, who disapproves of his sexuality, before she dies.

Emerging brutality

The seemingly civilised setting of a midwestern college town allows Taylor to illuminate internal states of unrest. The titular story has frictions coming to a head among a group of teenage boys, friends since childhood, who are confronting an emerging brutality. One of them has “a good, kind face” but “is neither good nor kind’; his “favourite act of violence is to burn holes into people’s clothes when they aren’t looking”.


In Little Beast, a babysitter who has left her boyfriend because she sensed in him “the same looming, wild, stalking thing that moves behind her” struggles to control a wild child in her care. “It would be nothing, would take nothing, to rend this girl to pieces,” she thinks. And yet she feels an affinity towards her charge as well, because “the world can’t abide a raw woman”.

Taylor has said that he is interested in writing fiction “that summons by indirect means the rhythms of living in the world”. Like his fellow scientist turned author Yiyun Li, he has a sharp eye for the detail-of-life stuff: Lionel’s vegetarian plate at the potluck includes “oxidising avocado chunks going soft”, which makes a “sad little pile” with “wilted kale, coated in dressing”.

Redolent of the work of Garth Greenwell and Bryan Washington, Taylor is also a master craftsman of sex scenes, with all of their attendant awkwardness. He deftly explores those strange bedfellows of tenderness and violence and the ever-changing geometries between people. “All of life was shifting equations,” observes Lionel. Charles and Sophie’s relationship is fraught even as a straight line: Lionel had “seen them bare their teeth at each other”. “Was that what it meant to be with someone?” he wonders. “Was that what it meant to care?”

Cool detachment

The stories in Filthy Animals, some of which have appeared in publications including American Short Fiction and Guernica, are more tautly composed than Real Life, which was written in a five-week sprint. Taylor has said that he considered himself primarily a short-story writer but thought he would be taken more seriously if he debuted with a novel.

Taylor’s characters are sincere without being sentimental – their pain too palpable to perform the cool detachment in vogue among his cohort. The agency he affords them provides dramatic tension and is a refreshing counterpoint to the passive ennui increasingly prevalent in contemporary fiction.

The verse John 15:19 relates to faith at odds with the ways of the world. “People are hard,” Lionel says to Sophie at the potluck. And yet, the partygoers “having seen him and his having seen them moved him. Lionel felt alive, in the world.” If there’s any redemption, it’s in such glimmers of connection or love – all the more precious for their rarity. Anne of Cleves follows a woman inhabiting an intimacy with another woman that she had never experienced in her previous relationships with men: “All that touching. All that seeing. All that being seen. But it had become the best part of her life.” When a hand stretches across the void, it feels like a state of grace – if not an outright miracle.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic