When constructing the list for my doctoral exams, I wanted to include novels that discussed issues of development, coming-of-age, and sexuality from multiple perspectives. Justin Torres’ We the Animals not only caught my attention because it was favorably reviewed by authors such as Michael Cunningham, but also because it contains Puerto Rican representations—and as some of you might know, these characters are quite scarce in YA fiction (especially gay YA fiction).
The novel centers mostly on the experiences of three brothers—Manny, Joel, and the protagonist/narrator—as they grow up in Upstate New York, trying to balance their humanistic demands with their animalistic urges. The two other important characters in the story are the mother, who is white, depressed, and unable to identify a shred of happiness in a domain ruled my machismo and poverty, and the father, a Puerto Rican man characterized by his rough, somewhat brutal, and at times impotent behavior. It does not help that the mother was only fourteen when she became pregnant with Manny, whereas the father was sixteen. Much of the tension within the novel surfaces when the children must assume adult roles as their parents come to grips with the fact that they were never given a chance to be children in the first place.
Part of what I enjoyed the most about this novel was its style and its honesty. The bulk of the narrative is told through the perspective of a sensitive protagonist who is seven years old. Torres did an excellent job of making the youth and the innocence of this character concrete, allowing the reader to understand and at times fall into the trap of the protagonist’s naiveté.
The mother constantly goes through heavy abuse by her husband—she is beaten, insulted, and at one point of the novel, it is implied that he rapes her. The protagonist, however, easily buys into the lies fed to him by his father. For instance, the father explains to his children that their mother was beaten and swollen because a dentist removed some of her teeth by “punching on her after she went under” (12). Other instances of naiveté surface later on, when the father drops off the protagonist at a museum, promising to be back in an hour, only to return hours later with no explanation. That being said, the entire novel is void of explanations because it is distilled through the perspective of a child, not an omniscient and all-knowing narrator.
What makes this novel so haunting is the fact that this violence and abuse is contrasted with many beautiful moments full of tenderness and genuine love. The abuse and the tenderness are further contrasted with scenes that are subtle, but that convey a frightening sense of realness and rawness to the point of invoking discomfort. Among these moments was the scene in which the mother and father were bathing the three children. The whole family is found together within a room, naked or half-naked, sharing an intimacy that I’m not accustomed to seeing in YA fiction. The father urinates as the children are bathing, the mother and father engage in sexual foreplay as the children observe from the tub… it’s a moment that may seem awkward, but that expresses a moment of unity and harmony: “no one wanted to fight or splash or ruin the moment” (45).
I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of the novel, and this love at first dwindled during the last chapters, where some very abrupt and dramatic changes happened somewhat out of the blue. Typically, within coming-of-age stories, one observes a natural, fluid, and linear progression from one point of the protagonist’s life to another. The narrative, particularly during the last two chapters, makes a jump to a future point of the narrator’s life, where he briskly lists the developments that have occurred during a large span of time: he has grown apart from his brothers due to his diverging sensitivities and intellectual interests, and also due to his sexual attraction to men. This split within the narrative occurs after two very important events: the character watches gay pornography for the first time, and after his father abandons him at the museum for a while, he is caught dancing in a feminine fashion. This leads his father to point out the following:
“I was thinking how pretty you were,” he said. “Now, isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.” (102)
This admission on behalf of the father could be interpreted in two ways: either the father was truly admiring his son’s beauty, or, he was coming face-to-face with the fact that his son deviates from the traditional expectations of masculinity (particularly within Latino communities).
While at first I was upset with this sudden and abrupt shift of tone within the novel, it was afterwards that I realized that the actual structure of the novel was mimicking the shifts that the characters themselves undergo when trying to balance their inner human with their inner animal. Furthermore, looking back on the narrative as a whole, I couldn’t help but notice how fragmentary in nature it is, which leads me to deduce that this coming-of-age plot never had linearity as a goal in the first place.
Furthermore, this narrative puts a new spin on the act of coming-out, in which the hardships of the actual process are not depicted. Conversely, the novel centers on the events that foreshadow the character’s sexuality and the final stage of formation as depicted in the final chapters. Keeping in mind that the protagonist has the tendency to be extremely insightful, yet simultaneously naïve, this leads me to argue that Torres’ novel is an deliberate amalgamation of opposing forces (child/adult, animal/human, before/after, peace/war) that is centered on chaotic beauty rather than on the linear and somewhat predictable exploration of grey areas.
Is it possible that the coming-of-age genre is in due course coming-of-age? What we have here is a novel typically categorized as a coming-of-age or YA text, yet it delves deeply into issues such as the construction/deconstruction of meaning, the fragmentary nature of memory and experience, all while embracing heartbreak and turmoil… making the novel (post)modern in every sense of the word. This is a work I must return to again in the future when I have the time.
Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Print.
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“Justin Torres’ We the Animals: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative” was originally published in http://angelmatos.net on June 6th, 2013.