Justin Torres’s Art of Exposure and Concealment

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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.

You’re making me think of the scene in “Blackouts” where two characters, Sal and Norwood, go to a bar. Sal, who is a sex worker, is young and attractive and from a working-class background. He’s fielding questions from Norwood, who is older and wealthier and seemingly trying to extract something that’s more narrative than sexual. Sal wonders how to preserve his dignity but also how to deliver, how to tell a charming story.

If you’re doing sex work well, in certain situations, it requires an understanding of narrative, of the desires that lie behind the desire. Sometimes people don’t just want you to be young and attractive. They want you to be, perhaps, wounded. They want you to be someone who might be able to be saved. You need to be able to understand the power dynamics at play and to give people both the sexual experience and the kind of story that they want. That scene in the book is about what’s happening between those characters, but it’s also about all of the desires that go into our desire for story.

One of the stories the book tells is Jan Gay’s. Could you talk a little about her and why you were drawn to her?

I was first drawn to the testimonies in the sex-variant study: these forty men and forty women who just told everything about their sex lives and family lives to clinicians who were studying homosexuality, studying deviance. The testimonies that they gave were so particular and vulnerable and vernacular. Somebody had really taken a lot of effort to get their voices differentiated and individuated. If you read the book, each one feels like a completely different experience. And at a certain point I realized that whoever did this transcription work was really, really dedicated to preserving something of these individuals, in spite of the fact that a lot of the text is dehumanizing—like, there’d be a first-person testimony and then a horrible summary in the third person. That’s when I discovered that actually the study was Jan Gay’s idea. It started as a liberatory project. It reflected her desire to change the mainstream narrative around homosexuality. “Sex Variants” began as hundreds of interviews that she conducted with lesbian women in New York and Berlin and Oxford and Paris. For me, that was a shocking discovery. This woman was barely mentioned in the book; she’s totally erased from everything!

How did you first encounter the “Sex Variants” study?

The book came into my life when I was working at a bookstore in San Francisco. The bookstore, Modern Times, was collectively owned. I was not part of the collective; I was just part-time. But it was a magical place to work, and we would take donations. There was this box of books, and it seemed clear to me that it had come from some kind of an estate, that somebody had died. The box had a lot of fiction, maybe entirely pre-Stonewall novels, and then it had the sex-variant study, the only non-literary text in the box. I was fascinated. There were photographs with people’s faces blurred out, measurements of people’s genitals. It was the kind of early sexology that combined eugenicist thinking and pseudo-Freudian ideas, and it was all over the place. I sort of knew about this pre-Kinsey sexology, but I’d never actually seen any of the empirical studies. It blew my mind.

Were there any particular moments or details from the book that stuck with you?

There were so many. There’s a story about a young man going to a movie theatre and having a surprise homosexual experience. And he goes home—this is mentioned in my book briefly—he goes home and tells a family member, a cousin. Then the cousin goes over and beats the guy up. There was something in the way that it was told: it felt really familiar to the way in which I, as a young queer person, somehow sensed how to find the queer spaces where there might be somebody who might be interested in initiating me into the sexual world without anybody ever talking about it. And it caught the way that those initiations are sometimes ugly or awkward.

Then, when I turned to the women, the first woman I encountered was this—her name was not in the study; they had anonymized her—but she was clearly a famous person. You could tell from the way they describe her career: that this was a famous woman of color who had come from an incredibly difficult early upbringing. I thought, I can find her. It was a moment of magic. Because for the rest of them, almost all of them, I couldn’t figure out who they were.

Who was she?

Edna Thomas! Saidiya Hartman also wrote about her in “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.”

And then you started creating erasure poetry with the text?

Not yet. I knew I wanted to write about the study, but first I tried to write historical fiction. I was terrible at it, and it felt like the wrong approach.

I made some photocopies of the pages and wondered, What happens if I get rid of all of the stuff that makes me feel gross? What does the text say if I black out this overlay of pathology? It wasn’t particularly artful, but then I thought, Instead of just seeing what the text says when I tamper with it, maybe I should more explicitly try to get the text to say something. I was curious about putting in more of myself and my own impulses. I got to the point of really forcing a page of text to do something other than what it wants to do.

But there’s such a lightness of touch throughout the book. You let things bloom in multiple directions at once.

I was talking to a smart friend of mine, Josh Guzman, and he said, Your book is all about the unconscious. You make it feel as though these things are just rising up. I took it as a huge compliment.

It feels like the novel is juxtaposing that spontaneity with the rigidity and oppressiveness of the scientific establishment at the time. You show how easy it was for doctors and scientists to pathologize marginalized groups—gay people and also Latino men and women.

The book contains medical descriptions of something called Puerto Rican syndrome. I was talking to Josh about how homosexuality was pathologized, and he told me to read “The Puerto Rican Syndrome,” a book by the Lacanian psychoanalyst Patricia Gherovici. The book is a critique of how doctors used the term “Puerto Rican syndrome.” Gherovici analyzes what the doctors thought they were describing, and she also probes what they may actually have been describing. Which is, in Puerto Rican culture, and in a lot of Latin American cultures, this idea of ataque de nervios, an attack of nerves. It’s a culturally bound syndrome; it’s similar to a nervous breakdown, but it doesn’t quite mean the same thing. You know that Almodóvar film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”? The literal translation of the Spanish is “Women on the Edge of an Attack of Nerves.”

People have reactions to intense moments of stress. These can be a kind of performance; they can look like epilepsy. And the way Puerto Rican syndrome was talked about is very similar to the way hysteria was talked about: here are people under immense stress having a reaction because something inside wants to get out. We are going to think about their reactions in terms of their anatomy or their physiology. We won’t ask why these people might be having intense reactions; we won’t ask what social conditions are producing these reactions. The “patients” got slapped with the label “Puerto Rican syndrome” because Puerto Rico itself was imagined as wildly other.

You know the term “Hispanic panic,” right? There was a period of intense migration from Puerto Rico to the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. New York City was changing and you got “West Side Story,” you got “12 Angry Men,” you got these cultural moments of people reacting, trying to process all the new people arriving. And the mainstream culture, white culture, was freaking out. They were panicking. They told themselves, “Something is wrong but whatever it is does not exist inside of me; it exists inside of these other people.”

Yeah, there’s this feeling in the book of not exactly knowing where things are, in a really broad and existential sense. Could you discuss the setting of the novel, the Palace?

I knew that I wanted to step outside of time and place. I didn’t want the pressures of a certain kind of contemporary realism to distract from this dialogue between two men in a room. I wanted to get them alone, completely cut off from the world, and, at the same time, to disarm any readerly expectation for a certain kind of plot or momentum.

So the narrator wanders out into the desert. The economic reality of the place, the daily functions of it, they don’t really matter. It’s ethereal, and maybe it’s purgatory, whatever you want to imagine. It’s the past or it’s the future.

And Juan—where did he come from? Did you have any historical or literary figures in mind when you were writing him?

One person that pops into mind is the writer Jaime Manrique, whom I only met after I finished the book. I love his work. He wrote a book called “Eminent Maricones”—eminent “faggots”—which is a memoir but also about the lives of other queer writers, Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas, and Federico García Lorca. I had a crush on his work, but I didn’t know him personally.

And then there are people in my life—some lovers, some not. At various points, their interest in me as a young gay man was conditioned on a frisson, a charge between us. I was thinking about professors, too. All of these people who’ve stepped into my life at various moments and were patient enough to teach me something.

The dynamic between Juan and Nene is modelled after how incredibly sexy it is when you meet somebody who has read everything and will talk to you about it and tease you out of yourself and share the world with you a little bit. In situations of erotic mentorship or romantic friendship, where what attracts youth is wisdom and what attracts wisdom is youth and beauty, magic can happen, a really wonderful exchange.

I went to SUNY Purchase for a hot second. I was terrible at college. I dropped out; I just disappeared. I had this professor, Morris Kaplan, a philosophy professor, and a lovely human. He knew I was living in New York and sleeping on my brother’s couch. And he said, “Come to this graduate seminar I’m doing on Plato’s Symposium.” I’m eighteen, nineteen? “Just come,” he said. I think he wanted me to have somewhere I would show up once a week. I couldn’t afford therapy. It was such a generous thing to do. I sat there silently; I was intimidated, listening to all these smart people. One of the things they talked about was the homoerotic relationship, the intergenerational Socratic dialogue—the importance of passing on wisdom through asking questions. It’s an incredibly queer tradition that goes back to antiquity.

We were talking, earlier, about the tension between concealment and exposure. It’s kind of a sexy tension. There’s a lot of withholding and teasing in “Blackouts.”

I like to say that “Blackouts” is a very kinky book. It’s all edge play. You’re, like, “Surely there’s about to be a plot! I think we’re about to get somewhere!” But then there’s an interruption or a blackout and the vignette ends.

Do you have any thoughts on the way sex is or isn’t handled in contemporary fiction, or even best practices for the depiction of sex in novels?

I definitely don’t have any thoughts on “best practices.” Even that language seems unsexy and corporate. Don’t have a best practice, that’s my only advice! There’s a million ways to write sex, sexiness, and eroticism, but there’s only one way to avoid it and that’s by avoiding it. I get nervous when people do avoid it because sex is so much a part of lived experience and so important to making queer art. I feel like I’ve read books that avoid the complexities of desire and that feel very respectable, safe, and cute. I find that disappointing.

There’s this idea that we live in a curiously childlike and sexless culture.

People who have been in power for a long time abused that power. There’s a rightful calling out and backlash, especially when it comes to sexual abuse. I don’t think the solution is to stop talking about sex and power and kink, but I understand the retreat. It is easy for me to be, like, sex sex sex! Sex all the time! Sex everywhere! Others might not want to talk about sex in their lives or in art because then people might sexualize them in uncomfortable ways. And they deal with that enough in their lives. So, yes, I get the impulse to retreat, but the fact is that we don’t get to be children again. It doesn’t make you a young adult, when you are in your fifties and sixties, to read a Y.A. novel, to inhabit these incredibly childlike spaces. You can’t purify the world.

Speaking of places you can’t return, can you talk a bit about your own childhood?

My childhood—what could I say that I haven’t said already, in “We the Animals”? The emotional truth of my childhood was in that book. Not all of the truth, but the part I wanted to tell.

I’m fascinated to teach undergrads because they’re still so close to childhood. They write stories that are all about terror: about feeling like the world is unknowable, unexplainable; about neglect and isolation; about stumbling on something they weren’t prepared for. As people move away from childhood, I think, they start talking about it as though it’s all running through fields and the sun. But it’s hard to be a tiny person in a crazy world! There is a process of romanticizing and scrubbing away how overwhelming and terrifying childhood is a lot of the time for a lot of us.

As a child, the qualities that I understood as manly and that I eroticized were ostentatious, almost peacocking, and quite hard and violent. Manhood itself was edged with violence. A strange combination. What glimmered and caught my eye and caught my fascination was this way of being incredibly beautiful and incredibly scary. It was so attractive to me. Will I ever escape that orbit? I don’t know.

What interests you about the line between fiction and autobiography? You play with it in both your novels.

This mixing is the way I write and the way I learned to write. Before grad school, I didn’t have a formal education in literary technique. I didn’t make firm distinctions between poetry, memoir, and fiction.

I developed an ambiguous personal-narrative form, like a prose poem. I would write tiny little things and not think about what to do with them.

Grace Paley—I love her—she handles autobiography and fiction and poetry brilliantly. Her persona is Grace and it’s also not Grace.

I suppose the factual material, the hard material, gives something to the narrator and to the narration. It expands the book, gets the narrator out of himself, and connects him to larger lineages. And his personal story allows us to move our way through that material more easily and bends it toward a narrative.

Free-associating a little, you’re talking about mixing fact and fiction together into a new unity, maybe an uneasy one. And you use a first-person-plural narrator, in “We the Animals,” that also evokes a kind of provisional unity.

In childhood, I didn’t know where I ended and my brothers began. I felt that, because we were a triad, I always knew what was going to happen before it did—the two would gang up against the one. It’s just the configuration that would shift. I felt so immersed. And the narrator of the book is immersed in a similar kind of brotherhood. But then, there are moments of first-person-singular narration, and that’s when a sense of isolation has slipped in.

In some ways, “Blackouts” picks up where “We the Animals” left off—“We the Animals” ends with the narrator being committed to a psychiatric ward, and “Blackouts” begins after its narrator is discharged from a psychiatric ward. This made me hyperaware of all the animal imagery in “Blackouts.” What’s up with the animals?

I am interested in the human animal. The animal part of us is where a lot of libido lives, a lot of the desires that we rationalize but that aren’t rational. I’m really interested in touch, in the body. If you bring in the animal world, you remind readers that we are not just minds and that our animal needs are real. In fact, they are more real than many of the other needs we manufacture.

Also, stigma doesn’t exist in the animal world—although I think animals can be embarrassed and they might ostracize one another—and I think a lot about shame and stigma, such human things.

Is it fair to say that your second book takes your first book’s dichotomy between being wild and being domesticated and refigures it as a dichotomy between being hidden and being seen? It seems like both books are fundamentally interested in freedom versus care. They just frame the question differently.

“Blackouts” is about redaction, erasure, and censure. But it’s also about the pleasures of what goes on in the shadows. The wildness and freedom that escaping attention allows you.

There’s a whole riff in the book on being a chronic loser. It’s about wanting to master one’s reaction to early traumatic losses by, for the rest of your life, just losing everything that’s important to you. Your wallet. Whatever. You realize that it’s O.K. You start to have a different relationship to attachment. I’m not a Buddhist, and I don’t want to give you some bastardized version of Buddhism. But the goal is nothingness, it’s relinquishing all of that churning desire. Being able to be with nothingness, to sit with it. It does seem useful. I mean, it’s where we’re all headed, right? This book is very much about death; it’s a deathbed vigil. The less terrified we can be in the presence of nothingness—when the idea pops up and nothingness comes into our mind, if we can just hold it for a moment before anxiously thinking about anything else—it does seem like a valuable skill.

In the book, nothingness becomes part of the mix. Fact, imagination, and nothingness.

My hope is that it feels as inviting as it does terrifying.

How do you think your relationship to humor has evolved from the first to the second book?

There are funny moments in “We the Animals,” but sadness is the overwhelming affect, not humor. I’m very proud of the book; it’s a young book and it was the best I could do at the time. But one of the things I wish for my work is to get more joy and comedy in—even if I’m committed, as I seem to be, to writing fairly dark books. I myself have a very dark sense of humor. I am always laughing.

Juan pokes fun at Nene for making the past into a cheesy movie.

Juan wants to deflate whatever is sentimental and romanticized. Queer men of a certain generation are supremely good at that. They know how to laugh at the cosmic joke.

In “Blackouts,” there’s a description of a children’s book called “Who’s Afraid?,” by Jan Gay’s wife, Zheyna Gay. The story takes place at a watering hole where lots of jungle animals have congregated, including a laughing hyena. The narrator reads the picture book as an allegory about a gay bar.

The queer laugh of the hyena. That hyena is on the cover of the book. I truly think “Who’s Afraid?” is about the experience of a young person going to a gay bar for the first time. This isn’t just me being incredibly queer and seeing queerness everywhere. The animals are all taking care of this young boy. There’s an amazing moment where the boy says, “Come meet my family!” And then you overhear the biological family, and they’re saying, “Our child has been recruited, he’s been stolen.” It’s a one-to-one parable about coming out. The animal characters are the archetypes of the gay bar, or at least the archetypes for that time. There’s Hippo, the drunk. There are Lion and Leopard: the macho studs who pretend they’re straight and that they never bottom and never flip. There are Monkey and Hyena, who are super campy and queeny and tease the macho studs about how easy it would be to flip them. But this reading is not something I could ever prove because everything was done in code, in the shadows. “Who’s Afraid?” was meant to both conceal and expose. It was meant to be widely consumed, but hidden inside it was another narrative. If you knew, you knew.

Tell me about your book as an aesthetic object. It is visually distinctive and complex. The type is a faint, almost glimmering brown. And there are illustrations, photographs, pages of the “Sex Variants” report that have been blacked out or redacted.

I kept telling my editor, “It has to be a beautiful object.” And she’d say, “O.K., sure, when are you going to turn it in?” But she was such a champion. She really understood how important to me it was to have the book be beautiful. “Blackouts” is printed on poetry paper; it’s nicer paper than your average novel has. It was hard to do, given the material realities of publishing, where there’s a bottom line to everything. For the images, when I couldn’t get color, I wanted sepia. But even that turned out to be too expensive because you have to wipe the plates clean between two colors. It seemed that the book would just be black-and-white. I was crushed. It was so important to me that the images feel warm and archival. Then the designer had the brilliant idea to publish everything in brown. We wouldn’t need to clean the plates. The text of the mockup looked to me like it was vanishing before my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. It was so perfectly married to everything that I had been writing about.

I’m thinking about the narrator’s third-person description of himself in “Blackouts”: “He wants, needs, to be lovely.” Why was it so important to you that the book be beautiful?

One of the things that happens when you have a fairly successful first book is that you get sent mountains and mountains of new books. I started to feel, with a lot of them, that I wasn’t sure why I needed to be reading them. They felt too quick; the narratives felt too easy. Or I’d think, Why is this book so awkward to hold? And then, of course, at all times, the screen is beckoning us, overwhelming our lives. I started to think about what the experience of reading a novel has to offer. What is it about a book that we love so much and that we don’t want to see go out of the world? It has to do with holding it in your hands. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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