Newengland's Reviews > We the Animals

We the Animals by Justin Torres
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Aug 02, 11

bookshelves: finished-in-2011
Read from August 01 to 02, 2011

We the Animals is about three "half-breed" brothers being brought up in Brooklyn by a Puerto Rican dad and a white mother. Why animals, you ask? As one might expect in these dysfunctional-families-equal-sales times, "Paps" likes to beat the ever living purgatory out of "Ma" and occasionally, for good measure, out of his little hellions, too. At the novella's (talking 125 pp., folks) start, the narrator son is, at age 7, the youngest, and the three amigos are separated by three years.

This fact carries some weight, considering the voice of the book. It is, for a first-person plural ("we" as in the boys collectively) which transitions to a first-person singular ("I" as in the youngest son) point of view, quite sophisticated. TOO sophisticated. Author Justin Torres might take refuge in the fact that he is an adult looking back, but that wouldn't explain some of the more mature and clever words the boys mutter in the dialogue. By the rules of narrative, dialogue is embedded in time, after all.

This is one of those "vignettes strung together as an excuse for a novel" books that have increased in popularity of late. In fact, the whole time I was reading it, I kept saying, "Torres is writing a boys' POV version of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, only not as well." The language certainly has that sometimes poetic, sometimes workshop colony air to it. Torres is a product of the famous (and, in publishing circles, self-perpetuating) Iowa Writers' Workshop (among others). He thanks many at the end, including one of his writing teachers, the famous Michael Cunningham. Surprise, surprise -- on the cover we get a blurb from this well known writer (his initials are "Michael Cunningham") that states, "we the animals is a dark jewel of a book. It's heartbreaking. It's beautiful. It resembles no other book I've read [Editor's Note: Apparently he hasn't read The House on Mango Street]. We should all be grateful for a brilliant, ferocious new voice." Apparently cut off during printing was the ending, "... who I happened to mentor, thus making him easier to discover."

Looking at Cunningham's blurb, I see that Torres comes by his penchant for anaphora honestly. Another Torres strength, when kept in check, is cascading participial phrases, sometimes in twos, sometimes in threes or fours. I'm not saying the book lacks good writing. It's in there, if you care to pan for it. What really jolts the reader, taking this book as a whole, is how it shifts from a coming-of-age story with rather violent parents (say, for 85% of the short way) to an entirely different kind of coming-of-age story at the end. That's right. In the last three or four vignettes, Torres springs some new information on us and this causes the family to act in ways that not all will buy, whether they're packing plastic or not. Honestly. I had the literary equivalent of American Express in my pocket and I was rolling my eyes. "No, no, no! In the first place, you're shifting gears too late and too suddenly. If you WANT to try and pull this off, you might need an additional 50 pp. to transition us to it." But no one listens to readers reading in a void. The writer-reader transaction is a mute one, alas.

Anyway, I guess this "new information" might be considered a "spoiler," so I'll leave it at that. What I won't leave is how it became a "spoiler" of another sort -- the type that spoils a book that was actually trying to be something.



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08/01/2011 page 34
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Zach The only similarity to House on Mango Street is that the authors are both Hispanic. Mango Street is a 3rd-rate convoluted mess of a prose poem pushed on high school kids around the country simply in the interest of "diversity."
While this book has its flaws, it is worthy of its high praise. (Aside: the complaint that a narrator sounds "too sophisticated for his age" is contradicted by the many masterworks of Faulkner, who could not have cared less about the sort of "authenticity" you find lacking in Torres' work.) (Another aside: do you think Michael Cunningham says such things about ALL of his students? There is a lot of unneccesary bitterness in your review; it's as if you're raging against the MFA-system rather than the novel in question.)


Karin I would also disagree with the idea that the plot shift is too sudden. I've read other reviews with this same complaint but I didn't experience that in my reading. there are plenty of hints through-out the book of his 'difference'.


message 3: by Sera (new) - rated it 1 star

Sera I found that the plot did shift suddenly, which took the book off its rails for me. I'm happy to hear that Torres made some fans from this novel, but unfortunately, not me. Thank goodness that there are so many books out there to read.


message 4: by El (new)

El NewEngland wrote: "It is, for a first-person plural ("we" as in the boys collectively) which transitions to a first-person singular ("I" as in the youngest son) point of view, quite sophisticated. TOO sophisticated. Author Justin Torres might take refuge in the fact that he is an adult looking back, but that wouldn't explain some of the more mature and clever words the boys mutter in the dialogue."

Ack! One of my bigger pet peeves. I haven't read this book so can't comment about it specifically, but do find the inappropriately sophisticated point of view in other books to be frustrating.


Patty Smith Wow -- this is one of the most beautiful books I have read recently -- and have TAUGHT. The writing is poetic, stunning. The shift from "we" to "I" is appropriate, as we move from the story of the boys as a group to the story of the narrator, a deliberate move to illustrate the youngest son's difference and outsider-ness from the rest of the brothers. This is a gorgeous novel, a study of what it means to be a boy/man in this specific culture. These responses surprise me.


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