Justin Torres: “Reverting to a Wild State”

08/01/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 1, 2011. (Available for free.)

Two of the most effective dramas I’ve ever seen have worked backward (Merrily We Roll Along and the French film Irreverisible) to crush one’s spirit in a moment of sheer happiness. (The sorrow, of course, comes from the foresight of how badly it will all end.) The problem with Torres’s piece, however, is that despite the story running in reverse (“reverting”), the first-person narrator remains aware of the sequence of events: he does not grow happier, looking back. He’s simply remembering things, trying to prevent himself from opening one of the doors of his memory palace so that he might remain with the good times, only to fail. His knowledge keeps the reader from discovering anything, from drawing our own conclusions, as does this early note to the first section: “And then something else, conviction, took over; I am a very good pretender. So, more than anything, I want to say this: in that moment, I was happy.” Could you work any harder to spell things out?

The sense I get, reading Torres’s piece, is of similar work being put into it: I’m aware of the choices being made in each sentence, I’m aware of how the examples given are meant to make a larger point. For instance, the story shifts from an urban city with trains whose “headlights [are] like tiger eyes in the tunnel-jungle” (which is an awful stretch) to a “tiny two-acre farm in Virginia,” where the narrator and his then-lover Nigel are flush with nineteen-year-old love, living in a shack that, each season, needs to be rebalanced to prevent from “tumbling forward into the fields of wild raspberries” (another strained parallel). For some reason, while going to the penthouse suite he has been hired to clean (while naked, or all but), the a doorman cracks a joke about all the “skinny little brown boys I seen pass through this door, headed exactly where you’re headed,” comparing our protagonist to a Third World soldier.

Not that there isn’t good stuff in the story: Torres opens with a clear example of the narrator’s thought process by having him discover a golden feather: “I thought of a joke, about rats devouring an entire golden pigeon,” which is funny because it’s not. And the awareness of our first-person hero is sometimes helpful as he acknowledges the role he’s supposed to play: the man who has hired him to clean wants this young boy to “pretend at vanity, [if you don’t] the men feel dissatisfied,” and while breaking up with his boyfriend (the one honest man, on whom he has repeatedly cheated), he notes that “I did not want to have sex with him, but I knew that he needed me to want to,” and so they do — violent, and on the bathroom floor. Even here, however, it’s impossible to see anything other than the clear points about this sort of lifestyle that are being made. If you strip that out, there’s nothing left in the story, and that makes, ironically, for a hollowed-out feeling.

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