Justin Torres: “Starve a Rat”

11/03/2011 § 2 Comments

Originally published in Harper‘s, October 2011.

Starring the same narrator as Torres’s earlier short, “Reverting to an Animal State” and potentially the same as in his slim novel, We the Animals, I find myself already bored with Torres’s fiction. Perhaps it’s the subject matter: the plight of a young, queer boy fleeing from his family and flinging himself into the world’s oldest profession to get by in the city doesn’t interest me at all, nor do the various fetishes of the community. Or perhaps it’s the writing, which feels redundant and unsure of itself, to the point that big ideas are stated rather than developed, and little is left to chance. This is not to say that the writing itself is cold, merely that anecdotes are always in the service of proving a point, and things do not naturally occur so much as they are instigated by this wounded, self-deprecating narrator.

We pick up with him in this story when he’s nineteen, drunk, and accepting the proposition of a random stranger on the street to come back to his home and “pose in diapers.” Instead, he manipulates the man into sex, turns him into a father figure so that he’ll have a warm place to crawl back to, and secretly hopes that this person will actually be the father figure who will accept his horrible truths and actually save him: “I told him he could save me, but I didn’t say it out loud. I said it with my eyes, with shy looks.” He’s trapped in an awkward spot, whereas he needs to control the world around him, and yet in which he also needs someone to cut through his dominant facade and actually help him. In his own mind, he’s like “a woman with an unlovely voice, who tried earnestly and without embarassment to make herself sound lovely”; he desperately needs to be seen in a certain light, needs to be loved, and yet only knows how to get the punch-like kisses of his father’s adoration: “Wild, [my father says], and I’m thirsty and angry and scared, but he’s taking shots of me, and he’s giggling, so I go on strangling myself.”

At the core of Torres’s writing is a poetic sentiment — “As far as I could make out there was one way to get a person to fall in love with you — thrashing. In and out of bed, all the time, thrashing” — but it doesn’t sustain a slew of stories. There needs to be more than constant thrashing and there needs to be something that is actually lovely (or utterly despicable). Garbage is still garbage, and no matter how you cover it, you can’t starve that rat until you clean up your act.

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§ 2 Responses to Justin Torres: “Starve a Rat”

  • Tim says:

    This is a great use of first person point of view. The reader is lied to like all of the other characters with whom the narrator interacts. I found the story extremely engaging.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      I don’t know; when I read the first-person, I prefer it to have more of an immediate tone, one that is willing to lose itself in the heady nature of the action, to have the voice fit the scene. What Torres presents is hermetic, more experienced, and safer — much safer — than the protagonist. So it is that we get lines like “I was a little drunk,” without a glimmer of this in the tone, and “I’d finally gone down to the clinic; I had a disease,” which sounds more like the doctor’s removed diagnosis than the narrator’s.

      I don’t read first-person for analysis, I lose it to get lost in someone else’s thoughts, and as I said in my review, his proclamations and questions (“What kind of boy was I? And what kind of man did I want to become?”) only serve to re-enforce the unbridgeable distance between me and the narrator.

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