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We the Animals, by Justin Torres (London: Granta Books, 2012), 125 pp.
Subject Matter – a coming-of-age story about a young boy, one of three brothers, in a mixed-race family in New York. The family is a madcap, affectionate one, yet domestic violence is a feature of the parents’ chaotic relationship and their treatment of the boys. In the process of growing up, the boy discovers his sexuality.
Structure/Style – The book is written mainly through longer short-short stories. There are 19 chapters. Some are only 3-4 pages long, but many run to 6-7 pages, a small number are 8-9 pages long, and one is 12 pages long. As a result this novella stretches the category of the novella-in-flash, with so many chapters over 1,000 words (though under 2,500). Stories of 1,000-2,000 words in length have been called “Sudden Fiction”, following the anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, published in 1983 and edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. This was an influential book in the gradual crystallisation of the flash fiction category/label (before James Thomas’s 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories officially established the term Flash Fiction, describing stories of up to roughly 750 words). So if there were a category “novella-in-sudden-fiction” We the Animals would be there. Stylistically, the book is very energetic (in both the characters’ actions and also the vitality of the language) and the sentences are often strongly rhythmical, with recurring use of triple clauses (“We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock.” (p.1)). These create a wonderful musicality.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) We the Animals is a classic example of how to use vivid action to create dramatic energy and engage the reader – the boys have an irrepressible, defiant humour, and play wild family games (dressing up like monks, smashing fruit with a hammer, pretending to be trolls etc). These idiosyncracies linger in the memory. There is also significant conflict within the family – between the mother, father and children. And the descriptions are intensely physical and sensory. One of the lasting impressions of the book, therefore, is its sheer energy.
(2) Although the chapters are often slightly exceed flash fiction length, this book is a good model for writers who want to produce extended scenes and give each chapter a clear narrative arc – generally Torres includes plenty of action and there is plenty of progression occurring, usually with a clear shift embedded in each story by the end – a kind of “lift-off” into an image or resonating new idea.
(3) The book is a remarkable example of how to use Point of View skilfully. Many early chapters use a first person plural “we” narrator and present the three brothers as a group; but gradually as the boys grow older an independent “I” narrator emerges as a feature – someone with his own action, occasionally with his own chapters separate from his brothers, someone with his own particular responses to his situation – the POV thereby reflecting the individuation of the adolescent. The use of the children’s point of view is nuanced – there are times when they don’t fully recognise the evidence of domestic violence between the parents, but the reader can infer it – the POV portraying the limited understanding of youth. In the penultimate chapter, there is a brilliant shift into an almost “dissociated” narrator – the boy describing himself using the third person “he/him” – which absolutely fits the fraught emotional situation.
(4) We the Animals is also a brilliant model for how to “pace” a novella. The first six chapters set up the family situation without moving the plot forward – a kind of kaleidoscope view of the family life from different angles, a rich exploration of character for its own sake and atmosphere. In the seventh chapter for the first time there is a sense of narrative development, acknowledging material that has preceded – “Papa disappeared for a while, and Ma stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking for us…” (p.30). The independent “I” narrator, as mentioned, eventually appears more strongly, and the novella then takes a more serious turn as the boy’s awakening into adulthood changes our experience of the story. The final chapter is highly metaphorical and enigmatic – a lyrical prose poem quietly closing this sequence of chapters that otherwise feel emphatically like fully-fledged stories. The book brilliantly shows readers how to set up a narrative context gradually and then how to crank the gears of the developing story.