We the Animals

New Price: $13.99
Used Price: $2.00

Mentioned in:

Motherless Tacoma: On Eric Barnes’s Something Pretty, Something Beautiful

It seems to me that few ideas are as freighted with ambivalence as the idea of home. I don’t mean ambivalence in the sense in which the word’s often misused, as a synonym for half-heartedness, but in the true sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Once you start looking for it in books, you see it everywhere. In Justin Torres’s We The Animals, home is violent and dangerous and a place to run away from, but home is also the protagonist’s brothers, from whom he’s inseparable. In Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, home is a place where it was possible for terrible things to happen and to be covered up; but when the protagonist’s wife suggests to the protagonist’s father, years later, that “[t]hat sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” the father flies into a rage and shouts at her not to blame Montana. Or the ache of immigration, documented in books like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: home is here and also there, I belong here and also I don’t, home is this country and also that one and I am always somewhere in between.

In Eric Barnes’s haunting new novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, this ambivalence is built into the structure of the book. (Full disclosure: Barnes and I published our first novels with the same small press back in 2009 and met a couple of times at booksellers’ conventions that year.) Barnes’s protagonist is Brian Porter, born and raised in Tacoma. The book is divided into five sets of five chapters, identically titled in all five instances: Now, With Kyle, Tacoma, Driving Away, Returning. The Now chapters are haunted by the past; the With Kyle chapters are suffused with regret; Tacoma is home, to be driven away from and returned to. Home exerts a pull, and it simultaneously repulses.

The novel circles through Brian’s life at various points. He is a motherless boy, a wild teenager, and a haunted man. Barnes has a good eye for the Pacific Northwest, the way grey skies and constant rain can lend a not-entirely-unpleasant melancholy to a place. Brian grows up in a working-class neighborhood, not so much gritty as perpetually damp. His parents were teenagers when he was born, and his mother walked out soon after. His father’s raising him, when he isn’t working, which is most of the time. His friends live in similar situations.

From early childhood onward, Brian is caught between two social poles. Kyle, his best friend, has always been good, in some essential sense of the word. Kyle’s low-key decency puts him at odds with Will Wilson, a sociopath who exerts a gravitational pull on Brian and on two other boys.

Brian spends a great deal of time with Kyle, and a great deal of time with Will Wilson, but never both at the same time. From puberty onward, life revolves around cars, but here is the difference: Kyle “started driving to his after school job when he was twelve, using a beat up car his older cousin had given him.” Will Wilson’s crew, on the other hand, uses cars to play car tag — two cars, a driver and a gunner in each, the teams trying to take each other out with BB guns. Later, there’s another, more dangerous game, in which the driver takes the car up to high speeds and then climbs out the window. Whoever’s in the passenger seat takes the wheel; the first driver slides over the roof — if the car’s going fast enough, he levitates just above the metal — and then into the car through the back passenger-side window, breathless and exhilarated with the nearness of death. “You live your life telling stories,” Barnes writes,
to people in a bar, to the guys you work with, to women you meet. When you’re a kid you tell stories to each other, sometimes only killing time between the next story you’d make. Will Wilson told stories with us and now when I think about him I think that maybe he told the stories with us, about the things the four of us did, only until he got bored of them, and then he started to make a new plan, to start a new story we could later tell.
The question, of course, is how far Will Wilson will go. He pulls Brian and the others further and further out, beyond ordinary teenage recklessness and into the kinds of stories that can mark lives forever. Quietly and methodically beating up other teenagers makes a good story, but not as good a story as arson. Arson’s not a bad story, but it’s less exciting than breaking and entering. The story no one thinks of, because the future seems so abstract, is how they’ll find a way to live with these stories in adulthood.

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is a remarkable book. Barnes effectively builds the tension of the story with his elliptical structure, and his prose is beautiful. He expertly manages events that in lesser hands would devolve into melodrama. This is a world where the pull of friendship is far stronger than the pull of family, where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts.

In Defense of Autobiography

When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.

Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”

This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.

But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”

So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”

Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”

But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.

And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.

Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)

When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”

And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.

The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.

Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.

Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.

That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.

But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.

But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.

Image: Flickr/Strevs

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR