2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author: Justin Torres, We the Animals

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

In December 2011, I wrote the following short review of Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, which I selected as my Most Notable 2011 Release:

At 128 pages the shortest book on this list, We the Animals belies its brevity with its ability to pack an emotional punch.  It is an autobiographical novel featuring three boys of a mixed-race marriage of two working class individuals who struggle with their situations.  Told from the perspective of the youngest child, the novel unfolds as a series of short, sharp vignettes (rarely more than three or four pages) that show the casual brutality of their lives.  Take for instance this passage devoted to the narrator’s seventh birthday:

In the morning, we stood side by side in the doorway and looked in on Ma, who slept open-mouthed, and we listened to the air struggle to get past the saliva in her throat.  Three days ago she had arrived home with both cheeks swollen purple.  Paps had carried her into the house and brought her to the bed, where he stroked her hair and whispered in her ear.  He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out.  Ma had been in bed every day since – plastic vials of pain pills, glasses of water, half-drunk mugs of tea, and bloody tissues cluttered the floor around her bed.  Paps had forbidden us to set foot in the bedroom, and for three mornings we had heeded, monitoring her breath from the doorway, but today we would not wait any longer. (p. 12)

So much is contained within this paragraph.  We see the lies that parents will tell to cover up their abuses, the mystery surrounding what could have led to it (the actions of both parents continually puzzle the children throughout the novel), the combination of curiosity and quick acceptance of what the father says – an entire other story laying beneath what is outlined here.  Torres does not linger upon the many events of this childhood; we see the traumas and the brutalities and the humiliations that parents and children alike endure and we may paint for ourselves according to the numbers embedded within the plot.  Torres’ decision to pare We the Animals down to its narrative bones allows readers to develop their own conclusions.  For myself, being a teacher of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children, what he describes resembles what so many of my former students have told or hinted to me over the past three years.

We the Animals is a searing reading experience.  We see the heartaches, the confusion, the outburst of tempers.  We see children neglected for most of their lives.  We see the struggles that the narrator has with his own sexual identity as he ages and how that impacts the family.  Torres easily could have provided a nice, pat ending where either everyone comes together or some other emotional/developmental milestone is reached.  Instead, he purposely concludes at the point where the narrator begins a new stage in his life as a young adult.  These lingering questions about how casual violence can be, how neglect occurs, and how children deal with traumas have no easy answers; sometimes, there are no answers at all.  We the Animals is one of those rare novels that captures the darker sides of families without becoming mawkish.  It simply is the most brilliantly executed novel published this year that I’ve read and therefore the most notable 2011 release.

***

Re-reading this book nearly a year later, there is little that I would change about my opinions regarding the novel, but there are a few things that I would like to note.  The first is that the use of the first-person plural for most of the novel is a powerful device, as it is meant to show how the narrator and his two older brothers, Manny and Joel,  are so very tightly close-knit for most of their childhood and early adolescence before the narrator (presumably a fictional stand-in for Torres himself, as many of the details late in the novel appear to resemble those that he had experienced in his young adulthood) marks the widening gap between them in the short chapter “Late Night,” in which the narrator goes off away from his brothers after a fight and “is made,” with consequences that tear the family asunder for a bit.

The second addition would be noting Torres’ portrayal of relationships, those of his brothers and himself and well as between the three and their parents (and briefly, those of other families that the narrator encounters late in the novel) tread a fine middle ground between happiness and tragedy; many families experience moments of division and reunion over the course of the members’ lives and while We the Animals concentrates on narrating the widening split between the narrator and his family over matters of education, mannerisms, and sexuality, there is a glimmer of hope present at the very end that there will be a reconciliation of sorts afterward.  The novel ends just when it seems that the narrator’s adult story is about to begin, but sometimes (and that is certainly the case here) that provides a “hook” of a different sort, one that makes the reader consider carefully what has transpired and to imagine what followed after.  Having re-read the book for the third time in 14 months, We the Animals is one of those rare books that seems to “grow” with each passing re-read.  Torres certainly is deserving here of his selection to the 2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author list.

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