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Justin Torres’ We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is all the best one hopes to encounter in a young author’s debut novel: all the raw emotion just past processing the wounds accumulated during adolescence, all the nostalgia for life as it was then mixed with the realizations of the convoluted beauty life reveals itself to be, and the no-holds-barred energy that comes from a young author dying (or living) to express themselves. The novel shows such mastery of crafting vibrant, visual, concise prose that it’s hard not to fall in love with and want to reread the novel as you find yourself reaching the last sentences.
We the Animals is the story of two young parents with three small boys, told from the viewpoint of the youngest on the cusp of seven, a boy so closely in tune and in love with his family that the viewpoint transcends “I” or “he” and holds steadfast to telling from the “we” of them all. A “we” that captures the kinds of childhood moments often forgotten: siblinghood scuffles and games invented to fill long days. A “we” that reveals the young parents’ struggles in crazy love with fights, separations, and mounting fatigue from jobs and sickness and poverty as they become the adults their boys need them to be as opposed to the irrational, erratic teenage lovers they were when they became parents. As the narrator grows into an individual at odds with his family, it’s a “we” that becomes an ugly reminder as its comfort becomes restraint that must be escaped as the narrator’s perspective changes to “them,” with an implied “and me.”
The nineteen short chapters read more like loosely related micro-fictions – until the novel’s careful structure reveals itself about halfway through and the brothers, whose boundless energy that was used for games and amusing themselves becomes increasingly aggressive and reactionary toward a world that doesn’t care about them, the father who disappears for a long stretch of time, the mother who recedes into a focused survival mentality, the strangers who see them as uncivilized little animals.
We see the love story of the parents through the eyes of the children, Paps and Ma looking out for and covering each other. After Paps’ long absence and return goes unspoken, a hide and seek game turns violent when Paps and Ma stop trying to find the children, obviously hiding in the shower, and get wrapped up making love on the sink. Afterwards the brothers slap and attack Paps, shouting “you were supposed to come find us!” Torres shows the brothers’ transition from seeing the parents as larger-than-life figures to people very young themselves, stumbling. When both are working, Paps gets caught having the children sleep on the floor at his night job and loses it. Ma packs the brothers and takes them to leave for good in the car – only to get as far as the park where she sleeps off the fantasy while the brothers wander into another made-up game. Torres writes with a deep understanding of the position of the parents, from that closeness that grows in a person as they find themselves the age their parents were as they were raising them.
The brothers react differently to life’s indifference and their parents’ fallibility. As teenagers the older brothers, Manny and Joel, become harder and identify closely with their parents’ realities of hopelessness and struggle. The narrator retreats into his studies and journals and explicit, violent sex fantasies as a means of escape until he eventually ends up hospitalized.
When the story culminates the family is at odds, “him” separated from “them.” But this is not the true ending; the book contains key moments reflected beyond the novel’s narrative. Clues to the experience behind the fiction live in the book itself: the inscription, the acknowledgements. It will forever be a fascination, how much of fiction is fact. Here, look at the story: a boy loves his family so much, identifies with them and grows with them, as they slowly grow apart in ways that hurt each other, and the boy ends up separated from them. Look at the inscription: “For my mother, my brothers, and my father…” Look at the acknowledgements, where amongst thanking agents, writing programs, and teachers, there is an “extra special thanks to Laura Iodice, my high school English teacher, who brought me books when I was hospitalized, and whom I love very much.” And draw your own conclusions. Is this a story imagined? Or is the book itself a story of “real” survival: that a person experienced things, accumulated pain, worked through it, and turned it into something awe-inspiring on the page.
We the Animals
By Justin Torres
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardback, 9780547576725, 144pp.