We the Animals by Justin Torres

One of the many tasks I have as an English teacher is finding books for my students, many of whom seem incapable of finding books for themselves.  I’m typically pretty good at it, at least with matching reluctant readers to highly readable texts, but for the most part I feel that in doing so I’m actually doing them a disservice.  What I should be doing is giving them the skills to pursue the books they want to read themselves.  If I start giving them books to read, I am providing them, hopefully, with something valuable, but I’m not giving them anything, ultimately, but an excuse to remain uncurious about their literary world.  They have me for that.

For the most part, however, if left to their own devices, the students who do not put a lot of merit into reading will not spend their time looking for books.  Some are, of course, pissed that I would even take the time to try and find books for them, and that is sad but part of my job.  Reading is something I’m passionate about, but it’s because I’m good at it and love it.  It doesn’t make me smarter, it just makes me talented in a skill-set that others don’t value or lack the wherewithal to pursue.  If I start to feel high and mighty about it, my toilet breaks and I’m rendered a moron, forced to pay someone who probably hates reading because he or she is smarter than I am in how water moves from place-to-place in my house.

I do enjoy reading and thinking about books, but despite the responsibilities placed on me by my job, I don’t necessarily feel like talking about books with other people.  I might listen or suggest, and I’m not averse to discussing my favorite authors, but as far as a book club or coffee klatch dedicated to discussing literature, forget it.  I’ve tried, but it reminds me too much of work and all the classes I took so I could go to work.

It’s probably mostly because I am an elitist asshole who feels that he knows more than everyone around him, but at least I am aware of this about myself, and try to avoid being a bore (or a  boor, boar, or even a Boer, for that matter).  I think that by your mid-thirties you should listen more than you talk, and though I am guilty of the opposite most of the time, it’s not through lack of trying.  Besides, I have a blog now, and can bore the multitudes without interruption!

If you’re still reading (why?) then I’ll get the corn of the matter, which is that if you have an extra two hours lying around I suggest you spend it with Justin Torres’s debut novel, We the Animals, which was released this fall to a lot of acclaim, but seemed to get lost in the shuffle when the big books dropped in October and November (1Q84, The Marriage Plot, 11/22/63, The Art of Fielding, etc.).

Torres writes of a mixed race family–the mother is Irish, the Father Hispanic—in what I imagine is blue-collar, small town New York State.  There are three boys, the youngest of which narrates the vignettes, and therefore the novel.  The basic plot, as it were, concerns the five-or-six–year span in the young narrator’s childhood and early adulthood, from around age ten to age sixteen, say.  For the most part, the book is really divided into two distinct parts: the first eighty or so pages are about the parents’ relationship as seen through the young sons’ eyes; the last forty concern the narrator’s sexual awakening.

(Quick note: I’m writing this from memory because I had to return the book to the library.  I used to think I remembered everything I read, then I started a blog and once I started recording a bunch of this shit I realized that I actually remember large swaths of what I hear, see, and read incorrectly.  Hopefully nobody finds that off-putting and maybe it’s endearing but if I get something wrong correct me.)

So we’ve got a coming of age novel.  Big whoop.  Throw in race, ok, big whoop again, right?  Picaresque vignettes that add up to a bigger picture.  Nothing yanking your crank quite yet, I suppose?

It’s basically Push by Sapphire mixed with a healthy dollop of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and a good sprinkle of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.  In other words, this book is a prime contender for English 112 at any state university across our great land.  It might even make it onto a couple of honors reading lists for high school.

In other words, it’s exactly a book that a piece of shit English teacher with piece of shit literary pretensions would foist on the unsuspecting public.  It’s the kind of book that reads easily but makes you feel good.  It’s a book club book, i.e. a book that makes liberal white people feel good about themselves, like when they listen to Kanye West or watched Brokeback Mountain.

Well, hold on.

The book is told in a series of long vignettes, all of which can and–as far as I can tell–have stood alone as short stories.  It’s very much a single narrative, however, though it moves in lurches, and a good bit of the frisson I associate with the book, a large portion of it’s power (and not a little of its weaknesses) is in the balance between the torqued style, condensed, anecdotal structure, and larger, overarching themes.

In a sense the entire book acts as a kind of chaotic fractal.  The poetic, compact density of the flow of language serves the ends of each vignette in that each can be viewed as a kind of mood piece, the mood often being that of anger and ferocity, the kind of all-devouring hunger for life that can make or destroy a child.  This intensity leads to the events themselves, most of which seem commonplace on the surface but hide a simmering violence that explodes several times in the book, almost musically in terms of build-up and release.

The overarching themes of the book, that of passionate and familial love, the burdens and blessings of the ties that bind, the need for escape and incapability of doing so are expressed through a repetition of events: crisis, crescendo, decrescendo, calm, crisis, etc.  Torres handles all of this extremely well, and there is tough-mindedness and fatalism in the thrust of the consequences that give the book a real sting.  It’s not manipulative, Like Push is.  The problems the family faces are largely of their own making and the book acknowledges that sometimes love is not enough and the Lord indeed gives you too much to handle and enduring is not an option but a way of life.  Whereas Sapphire is draconian in what she makes her characters endure and transcend, lending Push an inadvertent comical aspect, if you’re so inclined, We the Animals is honest about the problems the characters deal with in that it assumes that character is fate and people continue to make the same goddamn mistakes again and again and again and what we value most in life, as a society, can be poison in the wrong doses.

Also–and this is my favorite part–Torres manages a tricky tone throughout.  He is writing about a child, through the child’s grow-up eyes.  This has it’s own pitfalls, most of which he avoids, but it also keeps him away from the annoying, false, played-out, “unreliable-kid-narrator-who-is-wise-beyond-her-years-but-just-dumb-enough-to-allow-for-a-certain-amount-of-manipulative-irony.”  We’ll call it “kidspeak,” which can be used to describe any time a writer opts to employ the breathless, too-clever, whispery voice of the innocent to describe the big, bad, overly-complicated adult world.  I hate this voice.  It’s too easy.  It’s why The House on Mango Street annoyed the hell out of me.  Poor Esperanza!  Whose name means “hope” but should mean the-girl-who-can’t-use-punctuation and always writes in long vertiginous overly articulate fragments that convey a healthy mind of brimming heart about a world she wants so desperately to understand but will only disappoint her!  Torres, though the narrator is a child in the stories, never goes for the easy irony.  His point is not that innocence is something to protect, something clean and unsullied, only to be trampled on by grown-ups.  It’s that this messy world is not completely understandable to anyone, and growing up is cruel, but so are children.  His narrator knows this, because his narrator is commenting from outside the situation, even if he is obviously affected (infected?) by it.

So, read the book.  It’s shorter than this post.  I don’t do it justice.



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Filed under Book Club, Books, Essays, Justin Torres

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