Exploring the art of prose


Collective Voice: WE THE ANIMALS

We the Animals, by Justin Torres, is a wonderful example of the use of the collective voice in fiction. There are, of course, many other classic works that use this voice, including the novels The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Now We Come to the End by Joshua Ferris as well as the classic Faulkner short story “A Rose for Emily.” One of the ways in which this novel succeeds is that the voice, which starts so powerfully in the collective, slowly individuates as the characters become men.

The collective voice is strong and tells us, right from the opening paragraph, who the “we” consists of:

We wanted more, We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls: we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted more density, more weight. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brother, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

It makes such sense to use this voice for three brothers, young boys as the novel begins. As the novel progresses, and the boys age, more specificity creeps in. The boys are named, and one of the three, we learn, is the person telling us this story. The collective voice begins to break down. It’s a perfect example of how form and content move hand-in-hand. The largest shift occurs when the camera lens swings all the way around in the second-to-the-last chapter:

They grew up wiry, long-torsoed, and lean. Their kneecaps, their muscles, bulged like knots on a rope. Broad foreheads and strong ridges along the brow announced their resemblance. Their cheeks hollowed, their lips barely covered their teeth and gums, as if the jaw and the skull inside wanted out.

The movie, based on We The Animals, premiered at Sundance to great acclaim. The filmmakers chose to use the collective voice in the film as well, and we can’t wait to see how this lovely novel (and its collective voice!) translate to the screen.

by Laura Spence-Ash