I’m not sure how I feel about books that hinge on the final few chapters. I love a poem that hinges on the last line, it makes everything come full circle, feel whole. It can break you with that final period and stance of white space. Take for instance this poem by Josh Booton published in Raleigh Review Vol 2.
While that poem is magical and every word deserves a place; every letter, every syllable, every shape of the font hangs on that last line. And We the Animals by Justin Torres has that element. I wasn’t sure how to take this book until I got to those last few chapters, waiting for the cliff, waiting for that moment of hysteria that all good books have.
I don’t want to ruin the ending, so.
I’ll just explain my thoughts on We the Animals. We the Animals means nothing until page 103. It’s the story of three brothers who have a dysfunctional, factory working mother who wears steel toed boots with her pink painted toenails. Their father is more mysterious – he’s tied down by the mother through pregnancy and their marriage is one of deepness, regret, abuse, but also skin and the way their bodies urge together against sinks and through doorways.
The thing that’s really compelling about this marriage is the secret messages between the two. At one point, the father digs a grave and the mother stands next to it smoking her cigarettes and staring into the haze. I’m not even sure what was meant by this dug grave and his leaving. I’m not sure what sign I’m supposed to take from that scene but I like the way the characters keep secrets from the reader; that this is a true relationship and we’re only let in just so, just into the physical and not the mental.
There’s something really honest there that Torres is able to do in a lot of scenes and with a lot of characters – these character to character secrets. It’s a new form of irony, I suppose.
I think a lot of this book is also the controversial story. Torres doesn’t give it all away. While this is a short read, coming in at 125 pages, it is what’s in the white space, the glimmer between each sentence that really stands out to the reader. It’s as if Torres is standing over each reader saying, what do you think. What has happened.
Are we okay.
Are we human if this, this, and this, has happened and we are wild-eyed and bulldozing. I’m not sure how to answer these questions. How do we name animal, human? And then the element of monstrosity. When do you change human > animal > monstrous? These are all questions we have to know, for ourselves and each other. These are the questions that define us morally – not by governing law, or political party, but by our own hearts beating a centimeter below our rib cage but loud enough to hear in the dark.
What I’m saying is: keep reading. Torres fulfills the prophecy, the cliff hangers. He doesn’t come out in full disclosure of what happens behind the closed doors, but he tells us what a face looks like in grief, how to carry a woman as she yells “no,” over the shoulder, hips against bicep, feet above head, arms trailing back. He tells us the cause, but not the effect.
At the end we’re left asking: how? And yet, it’s all there from the very first word. Read again. Explore the devastation.