A bildungsroman novel, We the Animals by Justin Torres follows the narrator’s progression from a wild young boy and into a young gay man. His family is tight knit and inseparable, but by the end, he ends up estranged from them.
That description makes the novel sound traditional but it defies most expected storytelling methods. Torres uses a creative POV shift, short vignettes, and a conclusion that contrasts the rest of the novel to make this book a fascinating read. Justin Torres’ debut novel alters the traditional notions of how an author structures a novel and how plot should progress within it.
Using the Collective in We the Animals
As the title alludes, the narrator describes himself and his brothers in first person plural for most of the novel. They epitomize the “wild child” type. They destroy for fun, cause mischief for its own sake, and have little regard for the stress they put on their mother. They love each other fiercely, never are without the crew, and certainly can’t imagine a life without their mother in it.
As the boys age, the narrator begins to observe from a distance more often as the brothers instigate boyhood crimes. He slowly finds his individuality and selfhood over the course of the novel, which leads to his eventual estrangement.
Short, Quick Chapters
Torres also presents his novel as a series of vignettes. He writes each chapter like a short story. Most of the stories stay self-contained. Though there is a greater progression in the novel, the book proper has little to no plot. Instead, character arcs drive the larger book and each story’s miniature plot arcs keep the pages turning. It reads like a flash fiction or prose poetry collection that happen to focus on the same characters over and over.
Family in We the Animals
Most of the stories focus on the brothers’ relationship with their mother (and sometimes father). They love their mother unflinchingly despite causing her a great deal of pain and stress throughout. Although told from a child’s perspective, their mother is not a typical mom. She’s young, often overwhelmed, leaning towards eccentric, and sometimes even a bit crazy. Her idiosyncrasies don’t cause family issues, but they do help reveal more about why the sons act so wild.
The father is enigmatic at best, abusive and absent at worst. The boys’ parents hate each other in most of the stories, but they do share moments of intense love and passion. The strongest story in the novel, “Big Dick Truck,” relates the parents’ fight after the father buys an expensive truck. The family doesn’t have enough money to afford it and it doesn’t work logistically for their needs. The mother calls him out, saying it’s his Big Dick Truck because he’s trying to reclaim his masculinity with it. He promises to return the truck the next day, but everyone in the family knows he won’t. He never does return it.
A Sharp Shift at the End of the Novel
The book falls into a pattern for the first 7/8ths of the book: it offers snapshots of the narrator’s boyhood using “we” POV and short vignettes. “The Night I Am Made,” breaks the pattern. Told in first person, it follows the narrator’s involuntary coming out after his family discovers his scary and charged sexual encounter at a bus station. After this story, the book makes a significant shift and the narrator never feels like a full member of his family again. It changes the rest of the novel and provides lots of fodder for rereading. A second go round will show the small clues left about his homosexuality and his slow separation from his family.
We the Animals Feels Realistic and On Point
When reading this book, it will be hard to separate fictitious elements from real life experience. Whether this story comes from Torres’ life, is totally fictional, or lies somewhere in the middle, it stands as a testament to the prose that someone would question it. This novel is well worth a read for any writer of literary fiction. It is short and sweet and won’t take long to finish.