Justin Torres finds inspiration in the erasures of queer history

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Justin Torres finds inspiration in the erasures of queer history
Justin Torres in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, 2023. His second book, “Blackouts,” a finalist for the National Book Award, shifts between fact and fiction to tell an intergenerational story.(Jessica Lehrman/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- Any sense of anonymity that Justin Torres had enjoyed as an author was on the verge of vanishing.

Shortly before the release of his debut novel, “We the Animals,” in 2011, critics were starting to praise him and his slim, semi-autobiographical book about childhood, family and sexuality. Overnight, he was considered an authority. Just as quickly, impostor syndrome set in.

“I suddenly kind of got thrust into the world,” Torres, 43, said during a recent video interview. “I was being asked my thoughts about queer literature and Latinx literature, as if I had some kind of expertise.”

Getting started on his next novel was a helpful distraction. But whatever that was, Torres knew, it wouldn’t come quickly. “‘We the Animals’ was everything I had in my 20s,” he said. “And it takes a while to refill the well.”

A dozen years later, Torres’s follow-up has arrived: “Blackouts,” which Farrar, Straus & Giroux published this week. A dreamy novel that unfurls among mixed media and Socratic dialogues, moving freely between fact and fiction as it proposes and complicates questions about how history is made, it bears almost no surface-level resemblance to “We the Animals.”

“In some ways it’s the literary equivalent of a PJ Harvey album,” author Alexander Chee said of Torres’ new book. “It just felt so perfectly aligned with his talents and his imagination and the worlds he has access to, even as it also seemed to just be so much its own creature: a kind of deep conversation with elements of our queer history and queer past, especially here in America, that I don’t think we’ve really come to terms with.”

In other words, Torres is bound to be considered an authority all over again. But this time, he’s ready. He feels as if he has grown into the persona that was once thrust upon him. And, he said with the near-constant smile he wears during conversation, “A lot of it was also just — ‘I’m middle class now, this is interesting!’”

Torres, a New York native and the youngest of three brothers, has arrived at a state of relative calm — with the freedom to write and a teaching job at UCLA — after what he referred to as his “pretty chaotic” 20s and an adolescence in which he had been deemed mentally ill and institutionalized. It was a harrowing spell that he fictionalized in the climax of “We the Animals”: The protagonist is committed after his parents discover his diary, in which he detailed his gay desires.

At 18, Torres left the institution by choice, then started at New York University. But within a month, he dropped out; he couldn’t reconcile the cognitive dissonance of being so poor that he couldn’t afford a slice of pizza while living in student housing among the wealthy of lower Fifth Avenue. Stints at other colleges came and went until, years later, he got a degree in Latin American history from San Francisco State University.

In between, he bounced around and did drugs while holding down a series of “crazy odd jobs.” He did have a sense, though, that he would be an artist, and through it all he was an eager, generous reader. Most of all, he was attracted to writers like David Wojnarowicz and Gil Cuadros — “things that were kind of edgy and about queer stuff and queer survival.”

At the New School in New York, he took part in a writing course with Jackson Taylor that evolved into a private workshop; there, he produced and shared fragments of what would become “We the Animals.” He also had a job at the bookstore McNally Jackson, where he came across, as he put it, “a kind of realism that felt a bit, I don’t know, quick.”

“I often had the experience of enjoying something but also wishing that the writer had slowed down and spent more time on the sentences,” Torres added. “I wanted to write a book that was super immediate, that really kind of hooked you right away, and just was super voice-y.”

Torres continued to work on “We the Animals” — a novel like those he enjoyed, with precise sentences that teemed with potential energy — at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Eventually, the manuscript made its way to editor Jenna Johnson, then at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“From the first page, it was clear that this was a book, and he was a writer who took great care with his every sentence,” she recalled. “I was reading it on the F train on the way home. The usual publishing story is that you miss your stop. It was so short, and my commute was so long, that I got to finish it. And I wanted to read it all over again.”

Once the novel was published, it also caught the eye of filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar — who picked up a copy, as it happens, at McNally Jackson, and read it straight through at the store’s cafe. To him, “We the Animals” felt alive and utterly new, yet familiar in its treatment of the complicated feelings and violence often inherent in familial love. The two quickly became friends.

“He’s funny and he’s self-deprecating, and he’s honest,” Zagar said of Torres. “And he’s not so sincere. I’m sure he takes things very seriously, but he doesn’t push any of that seriousness onto his friends.”

Zagar soon began work on a screen adaptation. He was sensitive to capturing the book’s haze of memory, but also brought a documentarian’s eye for detail that often meant pressing Torres for information about, say, lampshade colors and furniture. It was a surreal spillover of the personal into the public that Torres was getting increasingly used to, especially as he continued to publish stories and essays.

Those stories, Chee said, seemed to be setting up a sophomore novel that followed the protagonist of “We the Animals” into adulthood. But even though its follow-up was due, Torres said, “a decade ago,” the ideas that led to “Blackouts” developed with luxurious patience that was supported by Johnson, even as she moved to another publishing house.

“Part of that process,” she said, “was letting him have the confidence to let the second book arrive, and knowing that it would happen. That goes back to his first book, and the recognition that this person knows what they’re doing.”

At the heart of “Blackouts” is a real book, “Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns,” a doctor’s collection of candid case studies that are recounted in vernacular and that was published in the early 1940s. Torres found it while working at the Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco, where it was the only nonliterary item in a box of used books that had been dropped off.

“I was just fascinated,” he said. “It’s so much more frank and straightforward than anything that was being published in 1940. It’s ahead of its time.”

He wondered who had owned this book, which made him think of the queer elders in his life, who, he said, “offered a connection to the past and provoked me to be curious about the past — but also who teased me.”

At first, Torres had an impulse to add life — characters — to the case studies in “Sex Variants.” But he didn’t feel that he was particularly equipped to write historical fiction, nor did he want to write something so recuperative when the truth of this book’s legacy, as he found after beginning to research it, was so much thornier, particularly in the exclusion of Jan Gay, the queer sex researcher whose contributions had been forgotten, and who had fought against the author’s moralistic treatment of homosexuality.

In the back of Torres’ mind as he wrote were favorite works of Latin American literature, such as “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” by Argentine writer Manuel Puig, which behave like puzzles. And what took shape was a corrective history of “Sex Variants” that reveals itself through storytelling as much as the documents included in the book, such as redacted pages and cryptic art that reinforce the permeating sense of erasure.

“I thought, I have a weird, strange medical text, and I need to engage with the archive in the way that I encountered it, which is just random stuff and blanks and intentional erasure,” Torres said. But alongside that is a protracted, stylized dialogue between two queer people of different generations, in an informal ritual of inheritance.

“Justin really lets these elements really change each other,” Johnson said. “It’s a novel in dialogue in the most simplistic definition of the phrase, and it’s also in dialogue with itself — on multiple levels.”

“Blackouts” shares a fundamental sensibility with “We the Animals,” Chee said — “both books emerge from the talents of someone who has a very keen ear for sound that comes out of the page” — but where the first novel operated with a kind of controlled tumult, this one has “such an incredible stillness” but nevertheless “very high stakes.”

In the days leading up to the publication of “Blackouts,” Torres was bracing for its reception, which so far has included a spot among this year’s finalists for the National Book Award. But he was also thinking back to how he responded to all the attention “We the Animals” received when it was released: by getting back to work.

“With ‘We the Animals’ I had my freakout, and this time around, writing the next thing has helped immediately,” Torres said. “I know some things about what I want to do. But mostly, the only thing I know is that I want it to be completely different from ‘Blackouts.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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