Book Review: We the Animals

We The Animals
by Justin Torres

It's about violence. It's about love. It's about the chaotic urgency of running away because you've done something wrong, but also about the quiet, silent, slow-motioned time of leaving your home for the last time.

Justin Torres' debut is about contradictions. The form itself is likely to raise eyebrows of readers: a novel? in under 130 pages? Can't be. Must not be too flushed out.

Yet Torres manages. A graduate of the Iowa Workshop and a writer whose life could never be described as boring (he's been a bookseller, farmhand, dogwalker among other positions), his minimalism is not too surprising. This, along with his writing habits:

"I kind of write sentence by sentence and I make sure that I have the exact right phrasing and structure and syntax within the sentence before moving to the next one," he says. "It takes forever. And I think that I just have a real attraction to precise, stripped-down, clear language."

It is with such precision and stripped down language that Torres wrote his book--an exploration of boyhood and family, with details inspired from his life as a biracial child in New York.

At the start of the novel, the narrator speaks for the family: "We."
"We wanted more....We wanted more volume, more riots....We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms."
It's a story about belonging, about tribehood. The characters are loose ends: teenage parents unsure of their lives and the boys they have who grow up to be like their parents. Yet it through the narrator's story that we see this fall apart.

It's when he turns seven or learns how to swim does he see himself as someone different, apart. He book explore that: growing up, growing out, which is indeliably marked by violence. The narrator's Ma goes on a fit when he turns seven:
"She ripped her face from mine and shoved me away from her, to the floor. She cussed me and Jesus, and the tears dropped, and I was seven."
In the scene, she accuses him of going on the same path as his brothers, yet it is eventually his individuality, his difference--his secret life--that breaks him, that is the tragedy, and breaks him apart.

Beyond the story, Torres's prose is frighteningly clear and iconic. Like Amy Hempel, his words, however few, echoes, and stays if not for truth, then for their sheer beauty. Torres, a practitioner of minimalism, fares quite well in both short and long form. While this particular story might be too short, too abrupt for some (it reads more like a long short story than a novel), it just proves that, indeed, we just do want more. Who wouldn't of Torres razor sharp, heart breaking sentences? Of his poetry in prose form?

1 comment:

  1. When I finished the book, I did a little research on the author and was relieved to learn that the story is not all autobiographical, according to what he has said in interviews. He also is gay, has two older brothers, a Puerto Rican father and a mother who is Italian-Irish and who worked in a brewery but comes from a very loving family.
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