In this Lit Show interview, Justin Torres discusses his debut novel, We the Animals. Torres is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he’s currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. His fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Tin House, and elsewhere.
Air date: Wednesday, September 21st
This bold, brutal debut novel is a meditation on a pronoun: we. Three brothers move as one through a rundown town in Upstate New York, their six arms throwing rocks, hurling open-palm slaps, pulling close in a fighting, biting embrace. Manny’s the oldest. Joel is the middle. And the youngest, our narrator, haunts the fraught space between them like a sweet and snarling ghost. “We were brothers,” he tells us. “We were monsters …We were the three bears, taking revenge on Goldilocks for our missing porridge.”
Their parents, Mams and Pap, had them at fourteen and sixteen. Their tumultuous relationship bursts with laughter and sobbing and long, unexplained disappearances. They kiss each other with their fists, and with their kisses, they wound.
In the fierce vision of childhood that unfolds, a house is pervaded by hunger. The boys push towards the back of the refrigerator for old half-finished cans of jam, explore emptied-out soup bowls with their fingers and tongues for every last wetness of broth, make condiment meals with free, diner-grade saltines. But their hunger’s not just the stomach kind. With every slap of skin on skin and gnash of teeth they push towards the upper limits of joy and terror, hatred and tenderness, If it burns, stings, freezes, or thrills, it will feed them.
Finally, in the last third of the book, a narrator emerges, distinct from his other brothers. Slowly and painfully, he begins to amputates himself from the family circle, but he longs for the days when “they” were “we,” crying like a phantom limb for the old, good body. The book, by its thrilling, conclusion testifies to the terrible pain of outgrowing the shell of family, to lift a lone voice and say: I was. I am. I will be.