Justin Torres’s Art of Exposure and Concealment

According to the author Justin Torres, “backstory and exposition are tricks of the adult mind.” That explains why his first novel, “We the Animals,” which is told from the shared perspective of three young brothers in upstate New York, unfolds not as a narrative but as a string of vignettes. The semi-autobiographical novel describes a family with not enough money or status to satisfy its hungers for food, dignity, safety, or belonging. The boys, born to a white mother and a Puerto Rican father, are halfway feral: their father, who has an explosive temper, disappears for days at a time; their mother works the overnight shift at a brewery. Parental love is abundant but expressed complexly, through touch, hard and soft, through delirious predawn meat loaves.

“We the Animals” came out in 2011, rocketing Torres, then in his early thirties, to literary stardom. He’d graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the year before and would go on to Stanford, as a Stegner Fellow, and the University of California, Los Angeles, as a professor of writing. After the novel was published, the National Book Foundation put Torres on its “5 Under 35” list of fiction writers; Salon named him one of the sexiest men of the year. A film adaptation was released, in 2018, to quiet fanfare.

This fall, after a twelve-year hiatus from print, Torres returned with “Blackouts,” his sophomore novel, a nested, dreamlike compilation of dialogues, images, bowdlerized source texts, and imaginary screenplays. The frame story follows an unnamed narrator who washes up at a halfway house in the desert called the Palace. He is there seemingly by accident, but really to visit Juan, his older friend, who is dying. Juan has been working on a project involving a real-life study, from 1941, titled “Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns,” written by the psychiatrist George W. Henry but drawn from the research of a lesbian journalist named Jan Gay, who crossed paths with Andy Warhol and Emma Goldman and who documented the lives of queer people in the nineteen-thirties. Henry used Gay’s research against her intentions to create a book that pathologized same-sex attraction. In “Blackouts,” Juan’s copy of “Sex Variants” has been selectively redacted, pages of grim medicalese transformed into erasure poetry. As Juan relates the story of the document and of Jan Gay, with whom he has a personal connection, the narrator reciprocates with memories from his own life.

Torres has a distinctly lyrical style, which he tempers with intelligence and subtlety; in the new book, he is also pushing into the bathetic. Tell me about your mother, Juan commands the narrator, and “make it terrible.” “Make me laugh,” he instructs, later, with “one of your whore stories.” (The narrator has dabbled in sex work.) By turns elegiac and teasing, and full of photographs and drawings, “Blackouts” offers a material tribute to queer art, queer lineages, queer life, and queer death. When I caught up with Torres last month, his novel had advanced to the shortlist of this year’s National Book Award for Fiction. Our conversation, which happened over Zoom, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

First off, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. [“Blackouts” has since won the award.]

Thank you.

What’s the difference, emotionally, between finding out you’re on the longlist and finding out you’re on the shortlist?

The longlist was more shocking because the book hadn’t come out yet, and there weren’t really any reviews. There were a couple of early ones, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and they weren’t raves. So I didn’t know whether the book was going to work, whether it was going to land. I think it’s hard to have a sense of the merits of your own book, especially at such a late stage. So the longlist was a shock, it was a delightful shock. But then, for the shortlist, you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance.

In the book, with all the blacked-out language and the mediation of stories within stories, there’s a real ambivalence about exposure. Is that ambivalence something you’ve personally experienced?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s something I feel all the time. Obviously, on the one hand, I want as many people as possible to read the book, and that involves me being out in the world and getting people excited about it. On the other hand, I’m a hermit. I would really rather stay home.

One of the reasons for the time gap between the two books is because I didn’t love feeling so exposed. I wasn’t expecting it, and I did not love it.

Did you feel too “seen,” like the public had too much intimacy and access, or was it more that you felt misinterpreted?

Both! I didn’t realize that I had to have a kind of persona and that I had to make decisions about what I disclosed and what I would keep personal. Every question that came my way—like, I’d never been on NPR, and I’d be in these situations where someone would ask, just how poor are you? And I wasn’t prepared. I would say whatever came into my head. Then I felt misunderstood. I didn’t feel like I did a good job representing myself.

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