Brandon Taylor (Haolun Xu)

“I feel seen.” Spend time on social media and you’re likely to come across this expression. Often, it’s used in a joking fashion. I’m a thirty-eight-year-old literature professor who tries, unsuccessfully, to win his students over by referring to the latest Taylor Swift album. Later that day, I see a GIF of the actor Steve Buscemi pretending to be a high schooler on an episode of 30 Rock. “How do you do, fellow kids?” the GIF reads, as Buscemi, fifty-five-years old, moseys over to some teenagers, skateboard slung over his shoulder, baseball cap on backwards. Immediately I tweet out the image: “I feel so seen.”

The expression also can be, and often is, used with great seriousness, usually with regards to issues of identity and representation in art. To offer one example, in 2021 Lin Manuel Miranda posted on Twitter about the origins of his musical In the Heights: “I started writing ‘In the Heights’ because I didn’t feel seen. And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us—ALL of us—to feel seen.” In this context, to feel seen is to have your experience or identity reflected back to you. Through this reflection, your experience or identity is publicly acknowledged. Through this public acknowledgment, your experience becomes—or at least feels, and feeling is the barometer here—more real.

This understanding of the relationship between identity and art—namely, that art is in the service of identity—is one of many vexing aesthetic and philosophical issues explored by Brandon Taylor in his new novel, The Late Americans. The book follows a rotating set of grad students—poets, dancers, musicians, mathematicians—all living in Iowa City (Taylor himself attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), most of them gay (Taylor is, too), several of them Black (like Taylor). This makes the novel, Taylor’s second, seem like a work of autofiction, but it’s not. As the Jamesian title indicates, Taylor is after something different and more traditional. The Late Americans is a novel of finish and style. It sees fiction not as serving identity but as exploring issues of moral concern. It’s hot after blessing, beauty, and meaning even while it often finds the world hurtful, ugly, and empty.

Taylor’s characters want to be seen: not in the way that “being seen” is talked about on social media but in the way that theologians use words like providence and grace. His characters long to have the very hairs on their head numbered, to have their lives matter, even while they doubt that such loving attention is forthcoming. They desire what the writer Joy Williams calls “that great cold elemental grace” yet fear that they’ve come too late for their desire to be satisfied.

This understanding of the relationship between identity and art—namely, that art is in the service of identity—is one of many vexing aesthetic and philosophical issues explored by Brandon Taylor in his new novel.


The book opens with a graduate seminar in which a student’s poem, “Andromeda and Perseus,” is being workshopped. Every detail of the scene is perfect: the workshopped piece itself (featuring “a graphic description of period sex in which menstrual blood congeals on a gray comforter,” the poem “reversed the title of the Titian painting in order to center Andromeda’s suffering rather than the heroics of Perseus”); the rapturous and bullshitty responses it elicits (“I want this in my veins. Hard,” one student says; “I love the gestural improvisation of it all—so very Joan Mitchell,” another enthuses); and the one disgruntled student, Seamus, who is having none of it. “This was the aping of poetry in pursuit of validation,” he thinks. He finds “Andromeda and Perseus” symptomatic of an increasingly common kind of poetic failure: “personal history transmuted into a system of vague gestures toward greater works that failed to register genuine understanding of or real feeling for those works. Self-deceptions disguised as confession.” Finally, Seamus can’t hold it in any longer: he asks another student, Ingrid, “Are you a poet or a caseworker?”

“What the fuck did you just say to me?”


Such withering piety, such righteous fury. He delighted in Ingrid’s façade cracking.


“It’s not a gendered term—unless you think it is. Now that would be sexist.”

The whole scene is about feeling seen. The poet wants to center female suffering over male heroism; those in workshop who respond enthusiastically are all women; the one who doesn’t is white and male. No one comes off well. The poem sounds ridiculous, the workshop participants seem silly, and Seamus looks like a troll. The poem seems an aesthetic failure in part because it imagines that good ethical intentions and appeals to identity are sufficient in a work of art. Seamus is an ethical failure because he can’t see the ugliness of his own actions.

If The Late Americans opens by showing how empty an identity- and experience-based aesthetic can be, it also relies for its effectiveness upon the reader’s familiarity with the world of grad-school seminars. I found many of the novel’s details delightful precisely because they reflected my own experiences back to me. A character remembers someone from college, “a lacrosse player from Vermont. They called him Tex for reasons [she] could no longer remember. That was how it was in college, she thought. You lived so far outside the context of your life that names stuck to you in a way that they would not have otherwise.” (For reasons lost to memory, my friends and I called someone in our dorm “Doog” rather than “Doug” for four years.) At another point, a character remarks, “The wine was decent, which was just the sort of thing that people in graduate school said about wine ….  Not quite damning the wine they drank, but withholding approval.” (In my grad program, conference papers were “solid,” films “entertaining.”) Faux-radical poems, seminar jerks, conversation as a continual attempt to “prov[e] that one possessed the faculty of discernment”: reader, I felt seen.


The Late Americans isn’t really a novel but a novel-in-stories. Characters glanced at in one story-length chapter become the focus of another before receding into the background of yet another. First, we spend time in the close third-person perspective of Seamus, the trollish poetry MFA student. He has a single violent sexual encounter with an older man named Bert and meets another young man named Fyodor at a bar. In a later chapter, we’re with a dancer named Noah, who has more regular—but just as violent—sexual encounters with Bert and spends time with Ivan, a one-time dancer and current MBA student. In another chapter, we’re with Ivan, who is dating Goran, a piano student, who in a later chapter invites Timo, Fyodor’s boyfriend, to drinks. Characters come together (often physically: there’s a lot of sex), drift apart, and come back together in new configurations. An acquaintance becomes a friend becomes a lover becomes a friend again. As Seamus puts it at one point, “He had the sense that he was in the middle of some great machine. They each were a widget that could be swapped in and out with hardly any trouble at all.”

Faux-radical poems, seminar jerks, conversation as a continual attempt to “prov[e] that one possessed the faculty of discernment”: reader, I felt seen.

At times, the novel’s combinatorial energy makes it difficult to keep things, and characters, straight. (Little is straight in this novel.) Is Daw the painter or the dancer? He’s sleeping with Noah; did he also sleep with Goran? Having finished the novel, I’m not sure that I could answer such questions. In the actual reading, though, the distinctions are clear, in part because of how Taylor attends to markers of difference: race, certainly, but also class. This novel considers intimacy of various kinds—the intimacies of sex, art, and violence—and it knows that intimacy is deformed and transformed by money: “They were both graduate students, Goran in music and Ivan in finance, but Goran had family money. That was the beginning and the end of their trouble. Money made things easier, in one sense, when you had been raised without it. Like the first good gulp of air after a long run. But then came the burn.” Taylor knows how class shapes character: “Timo had come up in the so-called Black Upper Middle Class in D.C., but what differentiated this from the regular Upper Middle Class, meaning white, was that there was less money and the money was less durable on the whole.”

When one is in a relationship, such differences seem absolute. Yet one of Taylor’s many gifts is his ability to move from this intimate perspective to a wider angle, showing how his characters all long, in one way or another, for meaning in a world that seems leached of it. Ivan thinks, “When he was a dancer, he’d known what to ask of himself, but now he felt unformed and unyoked. What was he to do with himself now and forever?” Seamus thinks of what it means to “submit” poems for publication: “Submission. That was what they called it when you sent your work out. When you put your neck on the block and awaited the cold clarity of the blade. You had to believe in the eternal. What came next, after they lopped your head off and hoisted it high in celebration. You had to believe that, in that moment, you became something greater, grander, larger. Submission required belief.” Though Taylor’s characters aren’t religious believers, they are haunted by the things religion once seemed to offer. They seek grace—in art, in sex—that they don’t expect to receive.

The Late Americans continually sets its characters’ Midwestern lives against something greater, grander, larger. In this way, though not in most others, it echoes another great Iowa novel, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. At one point, that novel’s narrator, John Ames, remembers a passage from Calvin:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense…. I do like Calvin’s image because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

Early in the novel, Seamus has a similar thought, though it offers him much less comfort:

The stars, he thought, had been watching him his whole life. They’d seen the whole thing go on and on. Him and the rest of all the people who had ever lived and ever would.


It was like living in a museum exhibit or a dollhouse. It was so easy to imagine the hands of some enormous and indifferent God prying the house open and squinting at them as they went about their lives on their circuits like automatons in an exhibit called The Late Americans. A God with a Gorgon’s head peering down in judgment.

Ames’s God delights in humanity; Seamus’s God doesn’t appreciate but judges. We might think that this is what it means to be belated. Whatever greater perspective beholds us, whether it be the stars or God, beholds us now with coldness. But this sense of lives playing out against vastness need not be harrowing. As two of Taylor’s characters shower together, the perspective widens cosmically:

He had a feeling of being look at, though, and it wasn’t Stafford who was doing the looking. It was as if there were a pair of eyes gazing at him through the shower wall, through the bulk of the house, through the trees, on the other side of the lake and beyond that, too, farther still, across the Adirondacks, across the ocean, across sky, far and beyond, vaster and vaster. He felt that these eyes could see everything he did.

There remains in Brandon Taylor’s work the ghost of belief: the hope, often thwarted but still existent, that coldness might become warmth, that lives might be meaningful, that indifference might turn into a deeper, more beautiful kind of being seen.

The Late Americans
Brandon Taylor
Riverhead Books, $28, 320 pp.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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