My favorite book of 2012 is We the Animals, by Justin Torres. It's a short, compact novel, 125 pages. Torres layers chapters of lyrical vignettes, showing three brothers growing up wild and battling their ill equipped but loving parents.
It starts, “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight.”
Last week, I saw Torres read at Southern New Hampshire University. He said he got the idea for the first chapter while waiting for a subway in New York and memorized its opening lines by repeating them aloud on the train. He used to write sentences in his head at work. Giving his lines rhythm made them easier to remember.
Torres read two chapters from We the Animals, “We Wanted More” and “Seven,” one of the books most affecting, eerie and tender and violent. He introduced it by saying, “This one is fun and uplifting...just kidding! I don't have any of those.”
In place of reading more, he admitted he was sick of reciting from last year's breakout, he encouraged a long question and answer period. Childhood anecdote: Torres didn't grow up with many books in his house, so he'd snag bodice ripper novels from garage sales.
People (my friends) like to talk about how autobiographical We the Animals is for better and worse. Characters' backgrounds and dynamics match those of Torres's family. The conclusion echoes the writer's adolescence, with jarring shifts in voice and pacing.
He said, “I use personal experience, and I try to make fable, make myth, make fairy tale, make story.”
Even though I write nonfiction, his process makes sense to me. Through narrative I try to build memories into their best possible stories. Besides making stuff up, all devices are fair game.
At the night's reception, I asked Torres to name his favorite book of 2012. He said Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, one family's post-Great Migration journey. Like Torres, Mathis attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the two are best friends.
Then he sipped a Shock Top, and I finished my merlot, and we worked on plates of mini eggrolls and mysterious quiche bites; we were hungry.