Saturday, April 28, 2018

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We were monsters--Frankenstein, the bride of Frankenstein, the baby of Frankenstein.  We fashioned slingshots out of butter knives and rubber bands, crouched under cars, and flung pebbles at white women--we were the Three Bears, taking revenge on Goldilocks for our missing porridge.

The magic of God is three.

We were the magic of God.

Justin Torres' We the Animals tells the story of three brothers--Manny, Joel, and an unnamed narrator, who live in upstate New York.  They live with Ma, white, and sometimes with Paps, who is Latino, both from Brooklyn.  Ma works a graveyard shift at the brewery, getting the hours of the day confused: "She would wake up randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning half asleep, she'd be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, 'What is wrong with you boys?  I been calling and calling for dinner.'"  This hectic air of confusion characterizes their lives, a chaotic freedom that is only exacerbated by the collective energy of their boyhood.  That's reflected in the energy of the prose, which possesses tremendous vitality.

The voice begins in the plural, the narrator's self diffused into a "we" that captures the sense that the brothers are of one piece.  Even when they ally with one and turn on the third, as kids do, it doesn't matter because they are a unit.  Torres manages to make this seem not so much a function of intimacy, but of chaos, as if in the absence of structures that would delineate the limits of family and personhood, each boy dissipates into the other.

Together, the boys witness the pain of their parents' marriage: Paps' frequent absence, his cruelty--toward Ma, toward them--but also, less frequently, his love.  When Paps rapes her, Ma takes the boys to sleep overnight in a park--will this be their life, from now on?  How about when Paps makes them spend nights on the factory floor because both parents work night shifts?  Among other things, We the Animals is a sensitive and complex portrayal of a poor family of color.

The novel is arranged as a series of titled vignettes, and each one is self-contained, though some are stronger than the others.  Over the course of these we see the collective voice disintegrate, as the younger boy begins to be more individuated from his brothers, more sensitive, less prone to violence.  And yet it's a shock when one of the stories begins, not with "we," but "they"--as if the narrator has finally broken away, and become able to look at his brothers with distance.

This separation is caused, or perhaps just accentuated, by his realization that he's gay.  At a bus station bathroom in the middle of the night he searches out another kind of male companionship, fundamentally different from that his brothers had provided, and ultimately is institutionalized for violent homoerotic fantasies, kept in a journal, discovered by his family.  When they confront him, they are arrayed in a line which he stands outside of, like a single point.  And though the novel leaves hope of reconciliation, it clearly sees the loss of the collective identity as something only possible and youth, and something that's lost at a dear price.


LisaMM said...

I loved this book up until the ending. It was jarring and I guess maybe that was the point. Great review.

Christopher said...

It certainly is meant to shake you violently from the tone and spirit of the stories that come before. I didn't expect the sexuality subplot (and it makes me wonder if there's an autobiographical aspect to it, though I know nothing about Torres) but it makes sense to me when you think of the two parts as about two kinds of male companionship, which sadly preclude each other. Thanks for reading!