Monday 17 June 2013

The Tortilla Curtain

T Coraghessan Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain is by no means a new book. But 18 years after publication it remains as fresh and relevant as it was when it rolled off the presses. In many ways, it is a quintessential anti-American novel. Not because it propounds the sorts of views that would make a megachurch-goer offer up prayers for its misguided author, or cause the casual reader to hunger for the flesh of babies. It does something far more subversive than that. It takes hold of the American Dream, turns it inside out and exposes it for the fraud it is. Be warned, this review contains mild spoilers.

The narrative follows two sets of couples. The comfortably smug Californian liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher; and Cándido and his pregnant teenaged bride, América. The latter illegally crossed the frontier, lured into the Golden State by the promise of running water, a nice apartment and half-decent wages. Their worlds collide when, after an unsuccessful morning at the local labour exchange, Cándido is knocked over and injured by Delaney. As a good, well-meaning sort he stops the car to seek him out at the side of the highway. Cándido is hurt but is mindful of getting swept up by la migra if he goes to hospital. And Delaney is worried about a lawsuit. 20 dollars - the contents of Delaney's wallet - are handed over and they return to their separate worlds. Delaney to his posh soon-to-be-gated community, and Cándido to his rudimentary camp in Topanga Canyon.

From here on in, the story of Cándido and América becomes unbelievably grim. Failure, robbery, illness, rape, madness, poverty, tragedy, exploitation - this is the lot for our Mexican protagonists. But at the same time, while you feel their despair and voyeuristically peer into their destitute lives, there is a sense of authenticity about them. Despite the problems, the setbacks, the misery, they are compelled to cling on to survive. Despite the pitiful pay, day after day they climb out their canyon hideaway to scrape a living polishing Buddha statuettes, clearing scrub land and, ironically, building the fences and walls designed to keep undesirable illegals out of the well-moneyed neighbourhoods. Time and again the racial slurs of the lazy spic, the wetback, the welfare wallers find themselves on the tongues of the novel's pampered and privileged. The miserable travails Boyle puts his Mexican characters through actually speak more to the protestant values of graft and hard work that underpin America's national mythology.

From the standpoint of Cándido and América, the men and women who cruise around the Californian highways in their Japanese-built air conditioned cars epitomise the American Dream. But seen through the eyes of Delaney and Kyra, it's a dream-turned-sour. For a couple that have a great house and well-paid jobs there's an utter emptiness to their lives. Delaney is a wildlife writer who churns out a regular column celebrating and bemoaning the local environment (a persistent theme is the encroachment of nature and their attempts to keep it out - especially when their two pet dogs end up as a gourmet dish for a hyena). He emphatically is not the breadwinner and there's all kinds of masculine crisis and emasculation playing out in his character - the long hikes, the hunt for the hyena, the gradual slipping away of his liberalism when confronted with the perceived threat of local Mexicans. Kyra works in real estate and makes huge commissions on the palatial desert abodes she sells to the white flight diaspora out from LA. But hers is also an existence shot through with neuroses, albeit one expressed in acquisitive desire and the pursuit of the meaningless professional desire to be the best at what she does.

The tipping point for our all-American neurotics is the growing, imagined menaced represented by the Mexicans. For Delaney, his car's altercation with Cándido puts him firmly on the path to reaction. His interior monologue frets over whether he jumped out in front of the car on purpose. And slowly the worm of bigotry gnaws at his rotten liberalism. At first he objects to the installation of a gate and a guard designed to keep Mexicans criminals out, but his run in with another illegal while out hiking, seeing them at the barely-tolerated labour exchange, and learning that the same man from his walk (who, as the reader will find out, is a deeply unpleasant nasty piece of work) had scrawled obscene graffiti over a property Kyra felt "was hers" pushes him from someone who reluctantly accepts the gate, and later a white stucco wall around the whole housing development; to a man obsessively trying to prove it was his Mexican (Cándido) who has been the root of all his troubles. The closing pages see Delaney, deranged and fevered by the prejudice he formally rejects, head out into the rain with a gun to hunt Cándido down. The climax, like much the rest of the book, piles tragedy upon tragedy but right at the end, almost with the very last line, a scintilla of hope is held out.

If for the Mexican protagonists the American Dream is an empty one, for Kyra and Delaney it is a dream squandered. The have everything, and yet it robs them of American virtues. Their soft, pampered and undeserved lives replete with what the internet mockingly refers to as 'first world problems' is a far cry from the thrifty get-up-and-go of Cándido and América. Perhaps most damningly, for all their liberalism they lapse into the sort of anti-immigrant prejudice even your average UKIP'er would balk at. And, perhaps the most important point of all, and where the novel makes its 'anti-American' bite is how they are determined to close off the privileges and opportunities they've enjoyed to the hispanic population living at the margins of their society. Just as Marx once observed that when one nation oppresses another, it will never be free; so their hysterical fear of illegals and desire to keep privilege locked in to people just like themselves sees them box themselves up in semi-fortified communities.

Land of the free and home of the brave. Boyle shows it is not.

1 comment:

Speedy said...

Yeah, good novel I'm sure, and I suppose the point you are wishing to make is about immigration in the UK - although it is the Liberal class that is very much the champion of it.

There is not so much "fear and loathing" by ordinary people as a sense of displacement, one that didn't really exist (to my knowledge, there was the usual racism of course) before 97 when New Lab decided to "rub the right's nose in diversity", "third worldism" as it is known that has largely substituted the ideology that the left lost - internationalising their power struggle once their own voting base fell out of love with them.

And there's the rub - to the middle classes and politically active it's a much wider world, these "international" values mean more to them, as does culture and novels like this they can enjoy and nod sagely to. To ordinary people their national identity, wrapped up in their culture and ethnicity, means a lot more. This of course is regarded with contempt by the bourgeois Left ("that bigoted woman").

I don't think most people think of immigrants as lazy, quite the opposite, they fear their industry.

Islam (if you want to equate Mexicans with that) is different, not least because on the whole the issues around integration come from more established communities, although I suppose its increasing presence may add to the sense of alienation because it is so strident.

In any case, I don't see how this is relevant to the UK. But perhaps that was not your point.