My rating: 2 of 5 stars
We the Animals is Justin Torres’s well-received 2011 debut. A short novel made up of discontinuous vignettes, it portrays the nameless narrator’s impoverished childhood in upstate New York with his two brothers and his Brooklynite parents, a Puerto Rican father and a white mother. Torres’s apparently autobiographical protagonist narrates in incantatory rhythms and precise imagistic description; the entire novel is governed by the titular metaphor comparing the family, and especially the brothers, to animals. The striking first paragraph sets the tone for the rest:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
The novel’s style accounts for its extravagant and rather silly back-cover blurbs from famous writers (who were mostly Torres’s teachers, to judge by the acknowledgments page); my favorite is Paul Harding’s excitable comment, competing with the book’s own imagery: “We the Animals snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart”!
The purpose of Torres’s fragmentary, lyric style is to present his ambivalence about the narrator’s childhood by representing it as a set of unexplained and inexplicable images. His parents are very young and far from home and responsible for three children in a state of poverty. He shows his father as abusive, his mother as complicit, he and his brothers as delinquent. In one scene, the father and mother begin to make love in the bathroom while the boys are in the tub; in another, the father almost lets the mother and the narrator drown in the guise of teaching them to swim. Yet, the narrator seems to want to say, this was his life, this was family, and there was love and vitality there. All the poverty, violence, and insecurity is, for better or worse, the source of his poetics. To impose a moral judgment, to render a sociological verdict, would betray what was living in his people. The novel’s animal conceit removes the family from the realm of human morality so that we do not too hastily judge them, while its aesthetic of the isolated vignette implicitly tells the reader of the subject matter, “Take it or leave it.”
I am sympathetic to this non-moralizing intention, but in execution it undermines what the novel does best literarily, even as it creates more moral (and political) problems than it solves. We the Animals is so disjointed that it never does much to bring the setting alive, and the narrator’s two brothers are hardly characterized. It is Torres’s depiction of the parents—particularly the mother, with her complex affect of resentment, resourcefulness, tenderness, and bewilderment—that is the novel’s glory. We do come to sympathize with these two characters through all their painful flaws, and we are meant to; but we would sympathize with them all the more if we knew more about them. Torres does not even say how they ended up so far from Brooklyn. His restriction of the novel to the child’s-eye perspective limits his strengths. The major aesthetic problem here is that Torres wants to incite feelings best provoked through extensive narration of the kind the traditional psychologically realist novel is designed for, but he writes in an anti-realist literary style better suited to modes like symbolism or satire, which do not require and cannot create fully rounded characters in a detailed social setting. To make a canonical comparison, he is trying to write Great Expectations as if it were As I Lay Dying.
(Why, anyway, would a retrospective narrator tell the story of his life this way? We the Animals is not a stream-of-consciousness novel like Faulkner’s, with the language spilling straight from the narrator’s psyche; it is a faux-memoir, but one for some reason written like a fever dream, as real memoirs are rarely written. Such unexplained lapses from verisimilitude in first-person novels cast as memoirs, which should at least imply some reason or situation for the narrator’s act of writing, is a pet peeve of mine.)
The novel’s literary faults quickly become political ones. Without narrative development, the characters remain half-allegorical—and given that this is, among other things, a social novel, this means that they also remain stereotypes. When the father makes a game of asking his sons to “shake it like [they’re] white,” in response to which they dance like robots, and then to “shake it like a Puerto Rican,” before playfully denouncing them as “mutts,” this is the plausible utterance of a character and description of a dramatic situation. But the novel’s developmental plot singles out the narrator as the only one of his mixed-race brothers to escape poverty, because of the intelligence and sensitivity—qualities the two other brothers associate with whiteness—that will lead him to become the writer of the book we now read. Moreover, at the end of the novel, we learn that the narrator is gay. (This latter fact is anachronistically positioned as a plot-twist, a big end-of-the-book revelation, when the novel would be profounder, not to mention more dramatic, had it been part of the story all along; again, Torres’s chosen form does not allow him to achieve the character development required by the kind of social and psychological story he wants to tell.) Overall, then, the animal undertow that is Torres’s metaphor for the family’s life can only be overcome when poverty and non-whiteness are left behind and then retrospectively aestheticized, transformed into the artistry we encounter in the book itself. Correspondingly, whiteness and middle-classness (and even gayness*) line up on the other side of raw animality. The novel’s epigraph, a quotation from the idealist Plato, comes to seem very appropriate. For a much more complex and thought-provoking contrast, consider the fiction and non-fiction of Samuel R. Delany, one of whose major purposes is to break the Platonic alliance between poetry and homosexuality, on the one hand, and whiteness and wealth on the other.
Torres’s simplistic and possibly inadvertent deployment of a racial, sexual, and economic allegory, championing middle-class whiteness as an inherently emancipatory transcendence of the animal state, especially for gay men and artists, is again the fault of the novel’s structure—such a structure is perfect for conveying emotion and presenting images, but it cannot complicate character and society as a less “poetic” and more narrative and analytical form could. Even if Torres wanted to defend explicitly the argument I take the novel to imply, fragmentary lyricism would not be up to the task. To choose a literary form is, in this sense, to choose content. As Wallace Stevens said, “A change of style is a change of subject.” A number of the negative Goodreads reviews deride We the Animals as MFA workshop fiction; I have no general argument to offer against the MFA, but it does seem to me that the institution’s evident focus on craft neglects questions of how form implies worldview—politics, ethics, metaphysics. This neglect is unfair to young writers, especially those with as much promise as Justin Torres.
* Or at least gay liberation. In one scene, it is implied that the narrator’s mother may be bisexual or lesbian; but her impoverished circumstances and her somewhat brutal marriage obviously prevent her from realizing her desire or declaring her identity, as the narrator is enabled to do by his literary talent.