Justin Torres' brilliant new novel, 'Blackouts'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Sunday October 8, 2023
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Author Justin Torres
Author Justin Torres

Literary fiction can become so enamored of its own gravity that both its creators and consumers sometimes forget that fiction is, fundamentally, entertainment. At no cost to meaning or significance, Justin Torres deploys fluid, engaging writing throughout his new novel, "Blackouts" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), that's far from frivolous but not shy of hilarity when warranted. In a way all its own, it's a consistent pleasure to read.

"Blackouts" is picaresque in its juggling of storyline, but the unseen art behind its smooth, inviting surface operates as a foil to faux profundity. The organizing tale is of two men, Juan and an unnamed man from his dark past who turns out to be in it for the long haul. Readers will have no problem believing that they met, in the non-specific but imaginable past, in a nuthouse, where, to be clear, they both were inmates.

So they're not model citizens or personages held up for emulation. But they're as sympathetic a pair as Lucy and Ethel, and their exploits leave us with smiles on our faces, no matter how dire the circumstances of a given moment. Torres proves himself a bonafide magician whose elaborate tricks are more felt than observed but intended to strike with a singular awe, like carnival acts focused on a single eye-catching outcome. The book eschews the operatic for the democratic, making it okay for readers of all persuasions to feel delight by how nimble the writing is.

Author Justin Torres  

Farewell to the animals
After the surprise success of his debut novel, "We the Animals," readers sent out an impatient call for more. To his credit, Torres took seven years to satisfy them, hugely worth the wait. Craft takes time, and Torres is a master of the kind of technique that insinuates rather than clobbers its readers over the head. You seldom see it, but you regularly feel it, because it's there, busy in the wings.

The skeleton and most of the meat of the novel consist of late-night conversations between an older and younger man, both of Puerto Rican extraction and both gay. These passages read like a kind of queer Platonic dialogue, heavier on meaning than on cold philosophy.

The closest Torres comes to gravity is his ruse about what drives The Unnamed —Juan calls "nene," or "sweetheart"— to seek out the dying Juan's redoubt, a tumbledown residence hotel known as the Palace. He's really craving authentic companionship, but his stated mission is to learn all there is to know about a demonstrably serious (and historically authentic) book entitled "Sex Variants," in whose production Juan was somehow involved.

That opens an earnest rehash of the trials and tribulations of queer people as treated —in all senses of the word— by the psychology professionals. Torres doesn't even flirt with the didactic.

There's a reminder that early versions of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," the psychiatrists' Bible, deemed homosexuality a form of "insanity" in need of a "cure." It took until 1980, when the DSM's renewed discussion of homosexuality at all (after disappearing altogether) found another subtle form of erasure, redefining same-sexuality as "egodystonic" homosexuality, a technical term insulting in its opacity.

Until 1974 in the States, homosexuality was deemed a perversion for which lifetime confinement and shock therapy of the electrical kind were deemed appropriate responses. Actual heroes of all genders in the fight for equality, as well as central players in the Harlem Renaissance, are cited, named, and sometimes more in a novel with a penchant for light-handed name-dropping.

Mostly they identify writers and other artists the reader is invited to consider Torres's influences, his artistic forebears; an august list.

Play within the plays
Dangled among the individual story lines are substantive asides into related if not always germane topics, in the manner of "Moby-Dick" without Melville's crushing earnestness. Torres weaves the narrative strands together with myriad devices, the most fetching of which are late-in-the-night tales Juan coaxes out of his adulator, a kind of tweaker Scheherazade.

The stories within stories are themselves frequently interrupted, not to create narrative density or confusion but to imitate the elliptical nature of life as we know and live it. There's no better example than the movie plot summary —the film may or may not be called "Starve a Rat" —Juan extracts from his amanuensis wannabe.

The movie, at least as retold by "nene," includes the sexual exploits of two of the principals, Sal and Norwood, who bear a more than faint resemblance to Juan and nene but are compelling in their own rights. Most impressively of all, the "digressive" sections testify to Torres's mastery of an enormous range of writing styles.

The language comes in torrents, washing reader expectations clean. Any suspicion that Torres can't write prose of the traditionally beautiful type is vanquished by passages like this stand-alone paragraph at the beginning of Section IV:

"And then I felt, or sensed, from the purple black of the soundless sky, that we were in the nethermost opposition of the night, when it's hard to believe that the day will ever break."

More adventurously: "Juan was dying, but only in the light, and only in the body. In the dark, his voice filled the room, sharper and more alive than I."

For sheer matter-of-factness, it would be hard to surpass nene's confession: "Mostly I placed that [personals] ad because I was broke and had been for just about every day of my adult life."

Art galore
The "blackouts" of the title are the redactions —a word today's news has taught all of us— in the printed text "Sex Variants," as trenchant in their silence as those in a Trump indictment. The words that peek out are telling, when they are readable, that is.

Those redacted pages are sprinkled generously throughout the novel with no further explanation, or any needed. The other attention-getting visuals are grainy reproductions of uncaptioned photographs (sometimes themselves censored with old-fashioned black bands) that bear, or don't, on the text they decorate.

Readers familiar with the fiction and non-fiction (the distinction is not always clear) of W. G. Sebald, who has a cult following among ardent fans of literary fiction, will recognize the device of inserting uncaptioned, grainy black-and-white photographs into the text, which has a way of increasing rather than decreasing the mystery of physical reality.

Torres's bold theft of the tactic both follows and departs from Sebald's practice. I'd be less than honest if I did not reveal that at the moment I thought Torres's version was just too-too, the picture, opposite page 102, of a naked young man in the bodybuilder pose of yore sans g-string, left me avid for more.

"Blackouts" all but demands being read in hardcover, hold-in-the-hand, behold-with-the eye format. In a kind of extravagance of the printer's art as practiced today, the novel is assembled in a wonder of presentation. The text is printed in a burnt-umber typeface also used in the inserts. End papers and bold section heads are further elements that quickly become more than ornament.

Such as Torres has a debt to his fiction-writing contemporaries, it's in his treatment of "nene" as someone more than a hustler or whore. He isn't just the narrator, he's us. There's no inhibition in the sex writing, which takes its place in this magnificent edifice of a novel as a matter calling for candor rather than sensationalism.

It's a book to get your hands on any way you look at it.

Justin Torres' book event, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 7:30pm at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., includes a conversation with Jonathan Escoffery; part of Litquake. Free/register at tockify.com/litquake

'Blackouts' by Justin Torres. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 300 pages, $35.

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