Justin Torres (2012) We The Animals GrantaBooks, London; 125 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84708-551-1
The cast of characters? It’s a family: Paps, Ma and three sons, Manny, Joel and the narrator who is the youngest. Paps was only sixteen and Ma fourteen when she got pregnant with Manny, and a month before she gave birth they ran away from Brooklyn, New York, to Texas to get married.
So the novel is set in Texas? No, in upstate New York. The Texas trip was due to the marriage laws there which allow teenage weddings. The family in this novel lives in cheap working class housing and are somewhat apart from their neighbours because Paps is Puerto Rican, Ma white, and the boys – as Paps puts it – neither one thing nor the other.
A semi-rural family idyll then? Hardly. Paps is abusive and violent to both Ma and the boys, and Ma is a ‘confused goose of a woman’. Most of the story is told when the narrator is seven years old and his brothers a few years older. Paps and Ma are failures as parents, stuck in dead-end jobs, and only Ma manages to work regularly. The boys for much of the time are left to fend for themselves, playing and fighting, ganging up on each other or those around them, but it is very clear that they are a close-knit band. They are the ‘animals’ of the title.
A bit like Lord of the Flies with the parents still there? That did come to mind once or twice as the boys went feral. Also, like Golding, Torres fills the story with symbols and spare prose, though these are less capably managed.
Are we in po-mo land or is there a plot? There are many short chapters, each a fragment of the past, and all of them memories of the narrator. They run in chronological order, with the ending stepping forward to the time when the boys are in late teenage. The fates of Manny and Joel are looking much like those of their parents, but the narrator becomes increasingly estranged from his family as he sees a different future for himself and is trying to cope with his emerging sexuality. For many of the early chapters he writes as ‘we’, meaning all three boys, but this shifts to ‘I’ by the latter part of the novel as the break with the family becomes both dramatic and final.
Any parallels to the author’s life? This is a debut novel for Torres and the parents and upbringing are very similar to his own, so yes, there’s a strong vein of autobiography. The dramatic ending re-works an event that happened to Torres as a teenager.
Does he carry it off? Overall, yes. The story conveys much of the bewilderment of children as they figure out how the world works, and their tendency to think symbolically. It also mimics memory in the way events replay as movies in our heads with bits of the reels missing or corroded with age. It only takes a chapter or two before you sense that Torres must have been on a creative writing course (it’s cheaper than therapy), so the style often reflects that. In interviews he has said that he spent five or six years writing this novel and at times it does read as if it is too wrought, too calculated, though I suspect Francine Prose would be proud of him.
Sounds a bit of a heavy read. Not at all, despite the subject matter. It tells a good story and you do feel for the various members of the family. Paps and Ma are tragic characters because they are aware that they are trapped in an unremitting slog just to survive and that they have no prospect of escape. They want their sons to break free, but at the end you see Manny and Joel will repeat the cycle. The narrator is finally broken down by hatred of his family and a deep self-loathing, but he is determined to become ‘upright’ in both senses of the word – to get back on his feet and to attain some respect in life.
So it’s a moral tale? Not overtly. It does show us that families are families – irrevocably bonded no matter how dysfunctional they are. Even in the face of family violence there can be affection and some attempt at love, however inept. The novel will reaffirm in many minds the idea that young teenagers shouldn’t have children and that bad parenting leads to yet another generation of hopeless adults who will themselves be bad parents. A century ago the eugenicists would have loved this tale. It also suggests that Puerto Ricans make lousy partners. But then we knew that already.
Star rating out of ten? I see we’re down to the imbecile questions. Bump.