We the Animals is a novella-in-flash by Justin Torres. The stories add up to a brutal and believable insight into family life for three boys growing up in a troubled family in New York. Despite its short length at only 125 pages, it covers big topics including racism, consent, domestic violence and sexuality. The choice of form is interesting – what does the piece gain from being written as a series of flash fictions that could stand alone rather than as continuous prose?
The first story We Wanted More throws the reader into the children’s desperate situation of hunger. The language is poetic and raw – ‘we had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight.’ We are introduced to these fighting boys surviving in dire circumstances with a violent father. This first piece reads like a flash, it contains a whole world and ends on a line that stops you from turning the page.
The next piece shows one of the purposes of this form. The mother figure has poor mental health. She mixes night and day and the boys daren’t correct her for fear of her reaction. In her confusion, she believes it to be one of the son’s birthdays. When one son corrects her ‘she looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous.’ The boys collude with her and create a frenzied celebration with the story ending ‘…it’s zero o’clock!.. it’s never-never time!..It’s the time of your life!’ This confused time-hopping mirrors the chaos of family life and fits well with the disjointed nature of the novella-in-flash in which mood and time change suddenly.
Layering one flash on another, a deeper sense of the characters emerge. In some of the stories the mother is shown as self-absorbed and neglecting. Later, it is revealed that she had all three children in her teens, and that is many ways she is still a traumatised child trying to survive an adult world she was unprepared for. The novella format encourages reflections on what we take from individual flashes; what assumptions and predictions come when there is such limited material.
There are novels that end each chapter with a line that has a big impact, or entices the reader to continue. In flash fiction, endings often have a poetic, visual or emotive quality that creates a space and stops the reader from feeling short-changed by the brevity of the piece. In We the Animals, each flash ends powerfully and often painfully. In a challenging story in which the brothers hit their mother with no resistance from her or their father, the flash ends ‘We hit and we kept on hitting; we were allowed to be what we were, frightened and vengeful – little animals, clawing at what we needed.’ This line not only explains the title of the book, but the last five words show the underlying psychological needs of these boys who have not had their emotional needs met. These endings are an invitation to stop and take a moment to absorb rather than to plough on, which creates a different reading experience from a novel.
The format of the book changes at the end. Each story up to this point is around four pages long and stand-alone. At the end of the novella, there is a ‘chapter’ of sorts called The Night I am Made which is broken down into five sections. This the point where the boys are young men and everything changes as the narrator gets in touch with his sexuality; and then the family find out. This chapter reads somewhat differently to the rest of the book, perhaps reflecting the nature of time and memory as different in adults than children. The final section of this chapter switches from first person to third. This has a distancing, dissociative effect as the narrator becomes detached from his own family through enforced psychiatric treatment for his sexuality. There is a sense of viewing the story from the outside, heightened by the final flash The Zoo which has a surreal, drug-induced feel to it as the narrator states ‘I’ve lost my pack. I dream of standing upright, of uncurled knuckles, of a simpler life….’Upright, upright’ I say, I slur, I vow.’
This novella shows the flexibility of the form. Each flash can be read individually and makes a fully formed, beautifully written story. However, in sequence they build a richer world while still offering something different from a short novel by promoting pause rather than the drive to read on. Then a combination of flashes within a chapter at the end of the novella provides a different experience – more urgency to read the entire chapter as one with a rapid build-up of drama and the crash of everything changing between these brothers forever. A final, paragraph-length flash pulls the story back to reflect on the underlying theme while taking a new approach to imagery and language that signals there is no going back.