Wednesday, January 29, 2014

California Dreaming

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 29
T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain

This novel begins with a very literal collision between America and Mexico. Delaney Mossbacher’s luxury import car hits Cándido Rincón, a desperate illegal immigrant crossing a tree-lined California road. A single accident between a well-heeled white liberal and a scuttling brown laborer locks the pair in an orbit of mutual destruction. Like opposing black holes, they slowly pull each other apart without ever touching.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s strange 1995 novel, his first following his fame-making The Road to Wellville, challenges the very structure of novel writing and storytelling. Its episodic, picaresque form centers on two characters who completely misunderstand each other, never have a conversation, and act spitefully. Everything could stop if the characters simply spoke to one another, but they can’t, because they don’t share a language.

In the weeks and months following their collision, Cándido’s injuries plunge him into violent illness, compounded by the fact that he needs to work. Sharing a Topanga Canyon squatter camp with his very pregnant wife, recuperation isn’t an option; he works, or they starve. Los Estados Unidos, which Cándido first relied upon to reestablish himself as a husband and a man, quickly becomes a land of shame, emasculation, and hunger.

Meanwhile Delaney, a writer and stay-at-home father, starts seeing echoes of his guilt everywhere. He becomes newly aware of Mexican work exchanges, but also of gang activity and racial animosity. He sees his white neighbors spitting bigotry, but because he rationalized the accident away with money, he cannot sustain counterarguments any longer. He struggles to maintain his idealism, but Delaney quickly joins the bourgeois system he once hated.

Boyle’s authorial symbolism may seem high-handed at times: dry, distant Ernest Hemingway he ain’t. Giving Mexican characters names like Cándido and América Rincón, and ensconcing his white characters in the gated community of Arroyo Blanco (“White Ravine”), smacks of allegory approaching medieval morality plays. But this lampshaded symbolism lets Boyle skip past what other authors would spent thirty chapters implying, straight to his story’s beating heart.

This isn’t a novel about how Norteamericanos treat Mexicans. This isn’t a novel about race or economics or how heartless white people are to brown people. Boyle writes, instead, about two characters so wholly wrapped in themselves, they cannot comprehend anything different. Delaney envies Cándido’s unpolished authenticity, while Cándido aspires to Delaney’s settled comfort. But every time they meet, they manage to widen the gulf between themselves.

Delaney and his wife Kyra moved into Arroyo Blanco to live near nature while remaining close to Los Angeles. Their Spanish Colonial neighborhood encourages leafy trees and faux Mexican chic. Their urban romanticism, however, leaves little room for actual nature; a coyote kills their dog on their manicured lawn. The Arroyo Blanco tenants’ committee erects first a chain-link fence, then a wall, to exclude anything Spanish-speaking or authentically natural.

Cándido will take any job, however demeaning, to achieve his goal of a simple studio apartment. He wants to give his wife and unborn child the gift of four walls. But his injuries age him, and América must take dirty, dangerous jobs that jeopardize her looks and her pregnancy. As squatters, they have few rights when first white teenagers, then Mexican gangs, attack and brutalize their camp. Whenever they think they’ve hit bottom, they discover how far they still have to fall.

Throughout their shifting struggles, Cándido and Delaney remain unable to speak with anybody who doesn’t essentially resemble themselves. Thus the grow entrenched in their attitudes and small in their horizons. Delaney establishes a fortress mentality, striving to exclude anything exotic, and lapses into knee-jerk racism. Cándido, likewise, becomes paralyzed by fear, unable to defend himself or his family. Both worlds become intolerably small.

In interviews, Boyle has stated that he doesn’t know what he thinks about a subject until he writes about it. This entire novel has the atmosphere of an experiment: what tortures can we inflict on characters until they break? As Cándido and Delaney repeatedly draw lines in the sand, and Boyle repeatedly forces them to retreat, both characters quickly become something they swore they’d never permit. Until they do.

Boyle doesn’t purpose, in this novel, to solve America’s border tensions. Indeed, situations have become vastly more tense and complicated in the two decades since this book debuted. But by simply letting two characters be themselves in an atmosphere that permits no compromise, and no communication, he forces us to hold a mirror to ourselves. This isn’t a novel about the border; it’s finally a novel about us.

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