Do you know about this book? Does everybody?
I feel like the release of We the Animals by Justin Torres should have been a literary event accompanied by some serious fanfare, fireworks and freak outs. Given the caliber of shiny names on the book jacket (Michael Cunningham, Dorothy Allison, Marilynne Robinson, etc.) I can tell that there’s been some much-deserved attention alighting on Mr. Torres, but I just don’t think there’s been enough. Anyone who cares about sentences should be running around, waving this book over their heads and screaming. I started it Wednesday afternoon and by Thursday evening had already read it one and a half times; it is only 125 pages long but even if it were 400, I would have started it again as soon as I had finished.
It is marketed as a novel although each of its slim chapters could work well as a short story. The first one, “We Wanted More,” is truly and without exaggeration one of the best pieces of writing I have ever encountered. I know I usually exalt the books I write about on this blog–I choose my reading list carefully enough that I often wind up liking what I read. But this is serious. “We Wanted More” introduces the reader to the three little boys, the animals at the heart of this book, and to their world–a Puerto Rican father and very young white mother, not enough money, not enough food, not enough power–and to the way love is a complicated, dangerous, precious and precarious part of their family. The chapter seems to be written in one breath; it builds and builds and builds and at the end, it breaks, but not explosively, quietly, unexpectedly sweetly yet still sadly.
Other stand-out sections for me were “Seven,” which shows the unbearable, innocent cruelty of a little child and “You Better Come” which is about as challenging and uncomfortable a few pages as I’ve ever read. I will concede to criticize the book just a little–I felt like the last couple of chapters came too fast and didn’t totally follow from what had come before; there was a jump in time that, while not large, was a bit jarring.
The themes and the overall arc of this novel are not besides the point–sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, brotherhood, family–but the real story in We the Animals is the sentences. They are the perfect match for the devastating subject matter. Justin Torres uses commas and colons to put together sentences that rise and fall, ebb and flow, butt up against each other and collide. These sentences are considered and carefully-crafted without every showing their bones; there is no process evident here–just magic.