Literature for Life: Coming of Age with Justin Torres

The bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age novel, has been a part of literature since the beginning of storytelling. Growing up, transitioning from childhood to adulthood is ripe with tension and anxiety, yet it is a universal struggle. Everyone has grown up at some point in their lives. It is hard to do something new that feels truthful in a genre that has been explored. Many say the great American novel is Catcher and the Rye. Dickens, Mann, Roth and even Rowling have all traversed the space of burgeoning adulthood.

So, for Justin Torres to work in the same sphere and do something incredible with it with his debut novella We the Animals is incredible. On this month’s Literature for the Mind, we look at the appeal and process of the young writer, Justin Torres. We then look at four contemporary bildungsroman novels that deals with coming-of-age in an interesting way from a book about comic-book writers to a soldier coming back from Iraq to Kobe Bryan and Kevin Garnett.

Share your favorite coming-of-age novel in the comments below.

Author Profile: Justin Torres: Identity was always important to author Justin Torres. Born to a Puerto Rican father and an Irish-Italian mother who moved from Brooklyn to central New York, Torres was the only Puerto Rican within miles. Torres has dipped his toes to different identities, racial, economic and sexual. He grew up in a working class family as a mixed race child struggling with discovering his burgeoning sexuality. In addition, he was an intellectual, more interested in reading than most.

Those different identities informed Torres’ first and thus far only novella, We the Animals, an extraordinary semi-autobiographical account of three brothers just living with the tumult of their parents. The central character, analogous to Torres, begins to discover his sexual identity as homosexual in a household that celebrates traditional male masculinity.   

Torres’ novel made big splashes when it was released in 2011 and there are good reasons why. Each chapter is split up into chapter headings because the novella is not a straight narrative, rather a poetic weaving through the vignettes of childhood. Moments radiate and Torres highlights those moments. The mosaic nature of childhood as shown by Torres is that of great joy and anger. Small moments for children are big. The only other form of media that I can think that was able to show childhood like this is Terrence Malick with his similarly autobiographical, Tree of Life.

It took Justin Torres six years to writer We the Animals which is only slight above a hundred pages long. He is a perfectionist, someone who does not like to write drafts. Instead, he is a constant revisionist, subscribing to the philosophy that each word must be carefully picked.

In grad school, Torres attended the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop which has produced Pulitzer Prize winners such as Michael Cunningham and at one point had Philip Roth and John Cheever as faculty members. Yet, he did not take the traditional route of signing a major publishing deal right out of the Master Program. Rather, he tinkered. In the meantime, Torres wrote short stories getting published in The New Yorker and Tin House and became a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, another prestigious writing program.

The years of schooling and being broke paid off as We the Animals has gone on to receive much acclaim and admiration. The success of the novel has allowed him new doors and opportunities, winning grants from Harvard and the National Endowment of the Arts. He is even teaching a new generation of authors as a Professor in UCLA and the University of Lezpig. It is even being adapted into a film and the famous author photo on the back flap of the book helped get Torres ranked number 4 on Salon’s “Sexiest Men of 2011.” According to Torres, the bigger honor was that he followed Thom Yorke on the list.

But, his appeal is not just because he is an incredibly handsome man. No, his truthful poetic nature. Some might say that is an oxymoron. Poetics is often used to exaggerate and can feel manufactured. But, Torres is looking for the emotional truth because nothing turns him off more than something that feels like a lie. That is why his process is slow and painstaking. He strives for perfection.

Recommendations

Indignation by Philip Roth: Philip Roth is a divisive figure in the literary world but it is hard to deny Roth’s mastery of prose. That is what makes Indignation worth to read even if you are not a fan of Roth’s “morality tales.” Indignation is a semi-autobiographical novel about Marcus, a Jewish son of a butcher who finds himself in a Christian college. He is young, rebellious and an intellectual in an environment where that is dangerous and looked down upon. He finds a girl who becomes his first love but morality and general male-dom blocks any forward momentum. Roth’s popularity is attributed to the way he is able to take truths of being an American and fit it within the mold of his characters. This is a very specific story yet, the implications of being an outsider, a confused kid and of course the heavy doses of Oedipal conflicts are ones that hit close to every male’s home. 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: I am not the first person to espouse the virtues of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has had such a foothole in culture that it has even begun being taught in English classes while I was in high school. The novel follows two Jewish cousins in the 1930’s and 40’s as they become comic-book writers and struggle with what success brings them. The novel is filled with history, Jewish-ness and real life analogous stories of the past. Like Roth’s novel, this book is quintessential America. These are young people who dream and achieve but falters to their idealism and aspirations when adulthood (or corporate capitalism) begins to hit them. It is artistry vs. capitalism. It is friendship vs. love. Revenge vs. forgiveness. More importantly, Chabon loves his characters and that era of history and that creates the full world within the novel. A must read for this much respected novel. 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: Fiction on war is a hard thing to pull off. There has only been a handful, that I would say is even good. Here Ben Fountain subverts the war story by not making it about the war yet everything about it is about it. Set during the height of the Iraq War, Fountain follows Billy Lynn, who along with his platoon has skyrocketed to fame when one of their firefights is caught by a Fox News camera crew. But, we never see that part of the war. Rather, we experience this through Lynn’s eyes as he is in the bowels of a football stadium waiting to be paraded around at the halftime show. Fountain points towards the truths on how we view heroes and stays grounded in the fact that these heroes are just young kids. The pressures of fame, war and youth ignorance pervades throughout Lynn and so far, is the great novel about the Iraq War. Ang Lee is making the film version and is scheduled to be released in November.

Boys Among Men by Jonathan Abrams: On the surface, this journalistic take on high school basketball players jumping to the NBA does not seem like it fits in the pattern of our series on coming-of-age books. But, that shows the brilliance of Jonathan Abrams, a former NBA writer for Grantland. Each chapter focuses on a different player from the successes of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant to those who flame out like Lenny Cooke. Each story is told as a narrative, making the reader feel for the current subject at hand. You want these players to succeed even though you know full well which players will eventually go on to achieve their dreams of making millions of dollars in the NBA and who becomes a footnote in the prep-to-pro era of the NBA. This is an engaging non-fiction read all about people who have to grow up too soon.