We The Animals, Book Review/Interview – by Mario Alberto Zambrano

Justin Torres is the author of We The Animals. His stories have appeared in Tin House, Granta, Gulf and Glimmer Train, along with other publications. He is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

He will be giving a reading on Monday, September 12 at 6:30 pm at The New School, moderated by Jackson Taylor, associate director of the School of Writing.  Alvin Johnson/J. M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, room 510

As you begin reading We The Animals by Justin Torres it’s as though you hear a voice speaking from a lowly-lit room, lips close to the mic, beating out rhythms of familial images, both beautiful and grotesque, with a drumbeat at the end of every phrase, like rock-n-roll, like the wheels of a locomotive proving the force of its momentum: “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of forks against the table, tapped our spoons against the empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riot.

The narrative propels us with the voice of a sincere boy, the youngest of three brothers, son to a white mother, most of the time exhausted between graveyard shifts, and a machismo Puerto Rican father referred to as Paps. “Mutts,” he says to his boys. “You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican. Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance in the ghetto.”

It’s a slim book, less than a hundred and fifty pages. But even so, verse and metaphor are so precise, so well stitched that there aren’t any loose threads for meandering prose. We veer our attention towards the depths of how the story holds, not so much with length but with a sense of connection. One feels it when coming to the end of a sentence, when meaning punctures the semblance of human condition and a mirror is raised. You see yourself–I saw myself–and herein lies Torres’ gift, his economy of language that when strummed hits emotions with indomitable pitch. He’s a sort of Leonard Cohen capable of telling a round emotion in a single lyric.

But the issue of length also relates to a matter of time, like when one is swept up when seeing someone at first sight. If the connection is strong enough, well, you sense something immediately. But more often than not it takes days, weeks, to feel as though something has gone past the skin, straight to the heart; that’s when the undeniable attraction and connection is felt.

This book does that in an instant.

But it’s also in this instant where I feel it hesitates, where a few more pages (a little more time) would’ve offered a deeper connection or a longer affair with the reader. The intimacy and openness of the main character doesn’t resist sharing familial relations or sexual fantasies. He soon escapes the room he’s invited us into, almost as if he tells us his name, shows us a bruise, smiles innocently and then runs out the door — leaving us wanting to know where he’s off to. Because of this reluctance (in allowing us to stay with him), the tension never breaks and we are left curious from one page to the next.

Torres knows what he’s doing; we never cease to pay attention. The amalgam of curiosity and compassion elicited is what makes the novel one of the most tender pieces I’ve ever read. His chapters are confessions of the most pure and dangerous experiences told from a young boy, and it hardly bleeds, hardly needs to. The pages are sore and bruised with an honesty that escapes its own brevity, ending with a subtle and unexpected brilliance that is nothing less than inspiring.

*Please continue here for the interview:

12th Street : How long did it take to write the novel and what was the process like?

JT: All told, the novel took five or six years to write, but for the first few years I had no idea I was writing a book. I was broke, living in Brooklyn, working when I could find work, and generally distracted. Then I got lucky, and that luck took the form of the New School’s own Jackson Taylor. Another writer, who knew I was looking for some guidance, steered me in Jackson’s direction. Through Jackson I met a group a amazing writers and many are still dear friends today. Jackson never talked much about publication or the industry side of things–he kept our attention on the work, on language.

12th Street: There is a variety  of rhythm and structure in your sentences and I wanted to ask you how you approach them. If it’s something you pay a lot of attention to or something that happens naturally?

JT: Probably, I pay too much attention. I do try to make sure to vary sentence length and sentence structure; I obsess over rhythm and I read aloud constantly. This makes me an incredibly slow writer. I’m flattered that you might think this occurs ‘naturally’, but no. I read poetry as I write and listen to a lot of music, paying attention to word choice, punctuation, syntax, and the sound and feel of words. I can totally geek out over that shit. Once, I wrote an entire story without any sentences that began with a ‘Pronoun-verb’ construction (I wrote, He said, She jumped, etc.). I’ll set little challenges like that for myself, to keep the focus on the language. A story is more than its subject matter, the beauty is in the way the story is being told.

12th Street: In the process of writing We The Animals were there any drafts that surpassed 125 pp? If so, what made you decide to condense the novel to such a tightly-told, collage-like narrative?

JT: I wrote a lot that did not get included in the book. At Iowa, I experimented with different structures for the book, including a second narrative that weaved through the first (this was a mistake and will never see the light of day). I always knew the book would be short, concentrated, and fractured. I wasn’t interested in writing a conventional coming-of-age novel with a traditional narrative arc–I wanted to disrupt expectations, and I wanted the ending to land like a punch. The structure, I hope, mirrors the action and the content. Maybe one day I’ll write an epic, expansive novel, though it doesn’t seem likely. Right now I enjoy cramming as much joy and hurt and mess and grace as possible into small, intense moments.

12th Street: What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the novel?

JT: I’m not sure I had any specific audience in mind. When I started writing I wrote for myself really, for the sound of the words. Later, I wrote for the folks in Jackson’s writing group. We would all gather in a little room, and read our work aloud, and I wanted so badly to impress them and earn their respect. I’m hopeful that the book will appeal to all kinds of folks–family is one of the most universal human experiences, along with sex and death.

12th Street: Name two authors that have influenced you.

JT: Dorothy Allison, who wrote books like Trash, Bastard of Carolina, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, and other books about family, betrayal, forgiveness, belonging, class, and sexuality, and so much more–has always been a huge inspiration, long before I got the chance to work with her.

Another, of the top of my head, is Tillie Olsen. Nothing has ever made me want to write more than Tell Me A Riddle. I still pull it out on those days when I’m afraid to do the hard work. Like Olsen, Grace Paley and Stuart Dybek are precise, concise, and stylized in a way that I admire, and the stories of Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie knock me out every time.