By Betsy Burton
Almost all those who love fiction and poetry revere Michal Ondaatje. Justin Torres, a newcomer to the world of fiction, has just published a book, We the Animals, that bears comparison to Ondaatje’s—at least to his most recent novel, The Cat’s Table. That’s a large claim to make, but the similarities between the two novels are striking, and the differences work to open up both books to the reader. In each, three feral boys savage the landscape in which they find themselves. In both books the three boys study the adult world, trying to make sense of it, and in each their perceptions and misperceptions color their eventual fates.
In We the Animals three boys run wild in their own home, alternately savaging and loving their mother, their neighbors, the landscape in which they reside. Their father, who drinks, and skips in and out of their lives, loves his sons ferociously but is also capable of ferocious cruelty. Their mother loves joyously—when she’s not too depressed to love at all. The boys themselves are three untamed puppies, growling and biting, licking and panting, running in mad circles. The narrator, the youngest, gradually gains a more distinct voice, separating out from the pack in this beautiful, mad, wilderness of violent familial love.
In The Cat’s Table three preadolescent boys vaguely supervised but essentially alone, also run wild, this time on the deck of a ship. In the place of family they have their fellow passengers. One of the boys, Myna, narrates, his voice skipping seamlessly from present to future and back again. He and his friends are also puppy-like in their manic energy and their curiosity, unattended as they slip from deck to deck, cabin to cabin. Like the boys of Torres’ imagination they weave the fragments of the lives they witness, the bits and pieces of conversation they overhear, into a mysterious tapestry of their own design—a design that turns out to bear only partial relationship to reality.
In The Cat’s Table, however, the journey and the tale proceed at a deceptively quiet pace, suddenly coming to a full boil as the boys engage in surprising escapades and encounter characters in shocking situations, then quieting again as Myna views these startling events through the hindsight of memory. The misperceptions of youth, its ardent loyalties and heedless heroics, the distant, bloodless vistas of adult recall, the unexpected connections and the missed chances are all stitched together with vivid threads of love, whether that love be boyish adulation or adult passion.
Such love is even more viscerally evident in We the Animals, the language so immediate that I laughed and wept, cringed and occasionally shut the book to breathe. For the reading experience of a lifetime, read them back-to-back. Both blend passion and adventure, metaphor and memory, into blindingly good and unforgettable works of fiction.
JUSTIN TORRES’ writing has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He’s worked as a famhand, a dog walker, and creative writing teacher and a bookseller. He will appear along with poet Alberto Rios at Westminster College on Friday, October 21, 7 p.m. in an event sponsored by the Utah Humanities Book Festival and the Anne Newman Sutton Poetry Series.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Scotiabank Giller prize and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, he now lives in Toronto.
Previously broadcast on KUER, 90.1.