The Language of Childhood: The TFT Review of Justin Torres’ We the Animals
Justin Torres’ slim, beautiful first novel We the Animals is an incongruity. Not just because it manages to be a novel without a real plot; or that it’s a kind of “ghetto porn,” but without the ghetto and not particularly salacious; but that it succeeds at that rarest of things – experimental fiction that’s actually a great read.
Made up of nineteen well-constructed vignettes, many no longer than just a few pages, the book explores the childhoods of three half-white, half-Puerto Rican brothers as they are alternately terrified and charmed by their parents, their neighbors, and their surroundings. If you add “until one of the boys [spoiler alert!] starts getting turned on by dudes,” that’s pretty much the whole plot.
But Torres isn’t necessarily a plot kind of writer. He’s more concerned with the characters’ odd, ringing language. Much of the book is written in the seldom-used first person plural point-of-view, which turns out, as it happens, to be the perfect way to capture the inner lives of three young brothers who are close in age, growing up together. “’Us hungry,’ we said to Ma when she finally came through the door. ‘Us burglars,’ we said to Paps the time he caught us on the roof … and later, when Paps had us on the ground and was laying into Manny, I whispered to Joel, ‘Us scared.’”
It gradually turns out that the boys have good reason to be scared. The family dynamic here is obviously fraught with violence, though the violence mostly takes place off the page. It comes out, to great effect – again, in language – in what the boys say as they play. When they toss a ball around, they imitate their father with each smack the ball makes: “This is for raising your voice,” “And this is for embarrassing me in public,” “And this is for doing something,” “And this is for doing nothing.” Torres’ language perfectly ties danger–when the brothers fight, they fight “kennel-style”–to family; when their mother gets her toenails painted, one of the brothers proudly notes that she’s “toe proud. Toe crazy.’” There are no milquetoast characters; everyone is either hilarious or histrionic, passionately loving or creepy. (Some, like the boys’ parents, are all four at once.) In a memorable scene towards the middle of the book, the boys pretend to hide from their parents, but when they’re ignored, they dare to tickle and slap them, shouting “because you’re bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, why don’t you do right, why can’t you do right…” Although Torres wisely resists the urge to depict child abuse in explicit scenes–Sapphire may have ruined that tactic for everyone–he can’t help letting the reader in on the fact that there’s more going on with this particular family than meets the eye. A co-dependent mother and father with no boundaries, for one.
Speaking of Sapphire, while reading We the Animals, I found myself thinking for some reason about her novel Push, made recently into the movie Precious. After I saw Precious — and was moved to tears by the performances in it — I was stunned when friends of mine said they hated it, that it was a shame that this type of novel is the only kind that tends to get published about poor minorities. I mean, I see their point, but I ultimately feel that writers should be allowed to just tell a story, and not have the story be thought of as representative of the characters’ race, or economic status, or anything. But Push is an interesting book to compare with We the Animals. If you like books that portray parents as evil abusers, and children as noble, tragic victims, this might not be the one for you. It’s more nuanced than that. The boys are obviously loved, and they obviously adore their parents. They have great imaginations, like many children do. When the family is together, they’re often having real fun together–although sometimes the fun reads as slightly sexualized, which may make you wonder where the book is heading. The book is set upstate, though the parents are from Brooklyn, and you can infer, if you like, that real sacrifices have been made to bring the boys up away from the concrete jungle, away from bad influences. Sapphire and Justin Torres are two very different writers, of course – one is a poet who chose painful, immensely evocative language for her first novel – and the other is a first-time novelist whose style is more oblique but still very powerful. I had similar complaints about both books, too–in We the Animals, as in Push, the ending feels very rushed for some reason.
By the end of We the Animals, Torres has cleverly switched away from first person plural to the more standard first person singular, focusing on the book’s main narrator, the brother who might be gay. Then he switches perspectives yet again. The changes in perspective, from “we” to “I” to “the boy” let us know, however abruptly, that things can’t go on like they have before. The boys are growing up. They have distinct personalities. One of them likes to have sex with bus drivers. In the final page of the book, the fate of the narrator is revealed in such spare language that it seems almost brusque. But again, that’s the power of We the Animals – it made me care for the characters so much that I wanted a lengthier, happier resolution.
The press materials that accompany the book suggest that We the Animals is at least semi-autobiographical. For Torres’ sake, I hope that some of the book’s underlying terror was exaggerated. But I’m glad that he was moved to turn the experience of childhood–scary, fun and completely unpredictable for most of us–into all of this beautiful language.
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