Review: The Barbarian Nurseries

Book by HÉCTOR TOBAR
Reviewed by MATTHEW HARRISON

The Barbarian NurseriesWhere does Los Angeles begin and end? A response to that question stammers when faced with the infamous concrete sprawl of the city without a center. The hazy boundaries of the metropolis would seem to resist any effort at a comprehensive and coherent portrayal in novel form.

The wide maze of highways, the omnipresent gloss of billboards, the horizontal swarm of neighborhoods and business parks and shopping centers that resemble each other, and the army of cameras transforming the city into a vast stage set have led writers to describe LA as a projection of surfaces that blurs reality and fantasy. The long-established connection of LA to the film and television industry makes it easy for visitors to view the hybrid architectures of the city as mere props and the multicultural residents as typecast actors and actresses always “in character.” In Nathanael West’s seminal LA novel, The Day of the Locust, the protagonist Tod Hackett sees “people of a different type” standing apart from a passing crowd costumed in the latest fashions. About these marginalized onlookers, Hackett understands “very little…except that they had come to California to die.” By “California,” Hackett means southern California, Hollywood land—the living spectacle he aspires to depict in a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.” The moribund folks on the sidelines of LA’s trendy masquerade have recently migrated from the midwestern and eastern U.S., lured by the elegance and leisure depicted in movies and advertisements. The American migrants in West’s tale have “eyes filled with hatred,” an expression likely owing to the disenchanting realization, upon arrival in LA, that most occupants of Hollywood land do not live forever in the glimmering form of an image.

Héctor Tobar’s new novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, takes on the challenge of narrating contemporary Los Angeles. In distant lineage with West, Tobar’s book also deals with the power of the popular media to manufacture identities and mold public opinion, with the mishmash reproductions of historical architectures in southern California’s neighborhoods, and with the trials of migration. Whereas West’s influential novel contents itself with satirizing the superficial and scripted aspects of life in early twentieth-century LA, Tobar’s ambitious novel probes beneath the sprawling surfaces of the twenty-first century metropolis to uncover a complex layering of cultural heritage. The migrants in The Barbarian Nurseries do not move from east to west within the U.S., but from south to north, across the border between Mexico and California, and not “to die,” but to be reborn in the myth of American prosperity. Many of Tobar’s immigrants have attained positions associated with American middle-class success, but most are transient manual laborers: “scrubbers and builders…planters and cooks, searching for the next place, the next hope.” The novel’s central representative of this labor class is Araceli Ramirez, an ex-art student who grew up in Nezahualcóyotl, was schooled in Mexico City, and is now employed, without a visa, as a maid in a posh Orange County mansion in the ocean-view gated community of the Laguna Rancho Estates.

Araceli’s employers, Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, have experienced financial stress from the recession, and have thus downsized their hired Mexican help, firing their landscaper and losing a second maid who refuses to accept less pay. Only Araceli remains to cook and clean. The degree to which the Torres-Thompsons take Araceli’s help for granted comes out when Scott and Maureen fight over the cost of a new backyard desert garden, which Maureen imports to replace the dying tropical garden that the fired landscaper had tended. The new garden of cacti is a contained outdoor diorama of the Chihuahuan or Sonoran, a spiky emblem of the hyphen in the Torres-Thompson surname, symbolizing the rough terrain that a Mexican Torres must cross to obtain the Americanized polish of a Thompson. The fight ends with Scott shoving Maureen into a “distressed Mexican pine” table that shatters. Maureen flees with her daughter to a Joshua Tree spa for four days, and Scott stays at a co-worker’s house playing video games. Both parents forget about their boys, Brandon and Keenan, who are left in the care of Araceli.

Days pass without Araceli hearing from her employers, and she fumes at the unfairness of being left alone to watch over the Torres-Thompson boys, since mothering is not part of her employment contract: “The pots and pans, the salads and the sauces—that is my work. I am the woman who cleans. I am not the mother.” A subordinate’s propriety keeps Araceli from calling Maureen and asking outright for an explanation: “For all her feistiness and independence of spirit, Araceli was still a slave to certain customs and habits, and her undeniably inferior social standing prevented Araceli from immediately picking up the phone and demanding of her jefa: Where are you and when are you coming back? That wasn’t Araceli’s place; she had to come up with a pretext for calling.” Yet Araceli contrives her pretext—to ask Maureen if “the children would eat Spanish rice for dinner”—to no avail, as the spa-bound jefa has left her cell phone behind. Neither can Araceli reach Scott. His office number rings a snide operator “amused by the incongruity of a woman with a thick accent and poor telephone skills calling a cutting edge, if somewhat small, software company, and asking for a mid-range executive in the same tone of voice these people probably used to order their spicy food.” Scott’s cell-phone number leads to voicemail.

Araceli has been fascinated with a photograph of Scott’s father, Juan Torres, “his swarthy skin rendered in tones of gray and darker gray, hands on his hips and an irresistible twinkle in his eye.” When she removes this photo from its frame, she finds “West 39th Street, L.A., Julio 1954” penned on the back. Unable to contact Scott and Maureen, Araceli determines to seek out Juan Torres. Her bet that el viejo Torres still resides at West 39th Street follows from her memory of Mexican homesteads:

“It was not in Araceli’s experience, or that of most people who had been born and raised into adulthood in Mexico, that families picked up and moved themselves and abandoned their old properties every few years…Property in Mexico stood as a constant. Once in possession of a deed, and sometimes without a deed at all, a family would plant itself on a patch of topsoil and allow themselves to become as rooted as noble old oak trees, their branches of children and grand children a canopy blossoming over the land.”

Araceli’s bold decision not to wait for her employers’ return might perplex some readers; her resolve to leave, based on a nearly sixty year-old photo, is one of the mysteries of her character, an explanation for which remains outside the many competing visions of her in the novel. Araceli’s departure from the Torres-Thompson home rises from a strong sense of worker’s integrity—she is not paid to be a substitute mother—as well as from a growing exasperation at the pampered Brandon and Keenan’s demands. Araceli is also keenly aware that her social status does not include the liberty, like Scott and Maureen’s privileged class, to run from a problem, or to battle a malaise with a vacation: “Araceli would like to leave, too, but she could not, thanks to the chain that ran back to the house and those two boys anchoring her to this piece of California real estate.” Ultimately, an urge to assert command over her fate, the same urge that carried her from Mexico to the United States, compels Araceli to break that chain of servitude. She does something that many exploited employees no doubt fantasize doing: she stops waiting for fair reciprocation; she severs “her dependence on absent bosses” and, in her view, assumes “control of the situation.”

However misdirected her journey in search of el viejo Torres in LA, Araceli’s action marks her conversion from a passive attendant—a mere extension of Maureen’s eyes and hands—to an agent of possibility. Araceli’s decision to leave with Brandon and Keenan, Tobar suggests, is no more problematic or illogical than Scott and Maureen’s impromptu retreats from their violent dispute. They go, and so Araceli goes, too, but she does so in hopes of rectifying the situation, not evading it. Tobar conceals the “original” causes of his characters’ actions in a smog of contradictory—and all too human—emotional reactions, just as he complicates notions of “original heritage” and nativistic claims to national purity. As Tobar’s narrative progresses, the question of why Araceli leaves with Brandon and Keenan becomes less important than the fact that she simply makes the decision, with the same sovereign impulsiveness that her “native” employers enjoy.

The novel’s momentum picks up as Araceli and the boys leave the gated neighborhood of the Laguna Rancho Estates and travel by bus and train and foot through Los Angeles. During their journey, they visit several families who represent gradations of Mexican and American cultural heritage, complicating the more black-and-white, us-versus-them perspectives that dominate the immigration topic on the American news channels. The houses of these families serve as surrogate nurseries for Brandon and Keenan, until Scott and Maureen return separately to an empty house and soon realize, when they finally encounter each other, that neither of them has the kids. Araceli and the boys are missing for several days before she sees herself on a television—the local news stations portraying her as a suspected child abductor. At this time, she and the boys have been staying with Salomón Luján, a prominent City Councilman in Huntington Park, and the uncle of Arcaceli’s best friend. Brandon, comprehending from the news programs that his parents are looking for him and his brother, proposes a call home, “his voice rising with the discovery of a simple and quick solution to their dilemma.” Scott and Maureen are obviously relieved to hear their oldest son’s voice, but their gratitude at finding the boys brings no aid to Araceli, whom the media has plucked from her employers and made into a scapegoat of immigration anxiety.

The discrepancy between her good intentions and her televised representation as a “fuzzy criminal” stings Araceli, spurring her defiance: “now that her name and her face had been fed into that tragic stream of the wanted, the apprehended, and the deported, she felt the need to resist.” Araceli perceives the unbalanced power between Spanish and English narratives of her days with the Torres-Thompson boys, thinking she “would speak her story in Spanish and la señora Maureen would tell hers in English: it was obvious to her that the two languages did not carry equal weight.” Araceli does resist: understanding that her Spanish language and status as a Mexican indocumentada would establish her guilt in a media climate suspicious of immigrants, she exits the house of Salomón Luján, trying to elude a circling helicopter. She absconds into a field of power transmission towers, a “kind of urban wilderness” outside the view of cameras and TV screens—or so Araceli thinks. A police car cuts across the field. Two officers leap out and sprint after Araceli. One of the officers tackles her, to the excitement of an independent filmmaker, who happens to be shooting the power field during the chase. The filmmaker captures the entire pursuit, using “seventy-five seconds of this footage” in his movie. Araceli is arrested, let go due to the inconsistent stories of Maureen, Scott, and the boys, and then arrested again and jailed due to public outcry and the meddling of a press-hungry Assistant District Attorney, who aims to close a high-profile case that will inspire a “great swell of popular indignation” and, one imagines, a great deal of televised interviews.

Araceli’s plight fuels protests and counter-protests across southern California, transfiguring her into the controversial star of the immigration debate. All the while, Araceli feels her image has been stolen and typecast as a beast in the crisis-theater of American media. One “very conservative” host of a popular TV show personifies, for Araceli, the deceptive editing and sensationalism that has distorted her character. While describing “these people” from Araceli’s homeland as unevolved, the TV host “played to the camera with his eyebrows, which moved like elaborate stage machinery above the radiant blue crystals of his eyes.” Araceli wonders, “What other eyebrows, mouths, and brains were out there, conspiring to put her behind bars again, and what did they see in her, that they would want to punish her so?” Despite her desire to escape these snapping television faces and the public hysteria they inflame, Araceli stays put, concluding that “she would wait and prepare herself.” She remains defiantly confident in her rectitude to the end. She refuses to perform the role of a brute kidnapper that both the popular media and the prosecutor, in “The People v. Araceli N. Ramirez,” script for her.  She rejects a plea bargain that would commute her felony charge of kidnapping to the misdemeanor of endangering minors, releasing her from jail, but into the hands of immigration authorities who would swiftly “liberate” her to Mexico. Tobar writes, “the thought of pleading guilty to a delito menor and accepting the convenience of a ‘deal’ offended Araceli’s sense of order and decorum.” She imagines California as “a home that had fallen into a state of obsolescence and neglect”—a home in need of straightening, so that people can move about freely, without fear of being accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Araceli’s case suggests the media-bred prejudice and paranoia that continues to restrict the social mobility of immigrants in the U.S.

Tobar meets a formidable challenge: a broad evocation of LA that is also poised and vividly focused. He does so through the lens of the immigration dispute, as it affects Araceli’s private experience and public image. His narrative converts the windows and interior decorations of different Los Angeles houses into metaphors of the class divisions and the competing perspectives on immigration in southern California. The novel opens with Araceli looking through a picture window at her employer, “oatmeal-colored” Scott, the talented computer programmer struggling to crank a lawnmower in his front yard. Araceli’s presence as a distanced viewer takes on increasing significance as she observes Scott passing through “the frame of the kitchen window,” and then through the “picture window in the living room,” and when she contemplates the family’s garden through “a second picture window, this one looking out to the backyard.” Other perceptual “windows,” framed by the lower-, middle-, or upper-class homes to which they belong, appear throughout Tobar’s novel: photographs in the Torres-Thompson living room give Araceli clues to Scott’s pedigree; bus and train windows become moving pictures of the LA landscape for Brandon and Keenan; and ubiquitous television screens frame Araceli as a criminal.

The first house that Araceli visits with Brandon and Keenan is the old home of Scott’s father on Thirty-ninth Street, now occupied by a single mother, Isabel Aguilar, her two boys, and an orphan named Tomás. Significantly, Tomás introduces his bedroom doorway and window to Brandon and Keenan as alternative TV stations: “In Tomás’s mind the window and the doorway were like a television of constantly switching channels, with new actors and dramas arriving to perform on the Thirty-ninth Street set before departing for new lives in other neighborhoods offstage.” In Tobar’s book, the children’s imaginations provide sharp critiques of adult fantasies—the stereotypes, constructed crises, and mass phobias sustained by the major media networks, whose selective visions of LA construct “reality” for the grown-up world.

Tomás’s TV-window captures a truth about the media-fed perceptions of criminality that quarantine the immigrant working class population of LA. Though his bedroom window, Tomás views people “chatting and laughing in large family groups, or quiet and alone with flight bags tucked under their arms, squinting up at the street names on the sign poles to make sure they hadn’t taken a wrong turn.” Unlike many of the adults around him, Tomás realizes that his bedroom window presents stories, the veracity of which depends on who controls the view. Tomás controls it, in his room, and so he interprets the laughing crowds in his TV-window as “families” and not, say, as a horde of criminal immigrants. Later, when Brandon responds to questioning authorities, he describes Tomás’s neighborhood as a place with “houses like jails.” Brandon’s simile has poignant truth given the demonization of the residents in Tomás’s neighborhood by the popular news media and the legal system.

Earlier in the novel, Araceli visits the home of Octavio Covarrubias, “one of the thousands of proletarian, Spanish-speaking autodidact intellectuals scattered across the Southern California metropolis….” In this section, Tobar uses home décor to materialize the clashing cultural values between Los Angelinos of recent Mexican descent and the self-consciously Americanized “natives” that Maureen and Scott epitomize. Covarrubias has an eclectic, joyfully indiscriminate taste. His “living room…echoed the contrasts between high and low culture,” a mixture that contrasts pointedly with the catalogue-bought, “high” furnishings in Maureen and Scott’s home, described as “a sun-drenched vault filled with an astonishing variety of purchased objects.”

At his home in Huntington Park, Salomón Luján, who “believed that being loyal to your gringo employers was the secret to mexicano success on this side of the border,” is preparing his famous Fourth of July party when Araceli arrives. He welcomes her and the boys to the festivities. Luján’s living room displays a painting of Don Quixote, who “stood for the idea that the Luján were descended from a place of nobility,” along with “assorted horseshoes” and “mounted vintage revolvers” that recall the vaqueros whose style influenced popular images of cowboys in American culture. Luján’s wry “Ivy League daughter” aptly labels his taste in decoration “Zacatecas Soap Opera Chic.” At this point in Tobar’s novel, it becomes clear that the comfortable blending of “high” and “low” styles within the Mexican homes is a material expression of the cultural heterogeneity that the characters against immigration fear.

The Fourth of July fireworks display accentuates the cultural and class divide in southern California. The explosions in the sky flash a bombastic myth of American cultural unity that contrasts with the diverse shades of Mexican onlookers on the ground. Like the bellicose newscasters who condemn Araceli as an example of immigrant lawlessness, the firework show indicates that what is loudest and most sensational determines mainstream notions of “the best nation” and “the best culture.” During the day, Huntington Park is full of competing “noises…amplified and transmitted far beyond property lines”—a sort of sonic melting pot. At night the fireworks, “louder than any other noise on that noisy day….were sounds of simulated battle meant to unite the respectfully quiet families of Huntington Park and their dysfunctionally loud neighbors in place and purpose, reminding them all of the name of the sovereign land upon which they were standing: Los Estados Unidos de América, the USA.” Generations of families from south of the border stand in a “low-culture” district of south Los Angeles and crane their heads toward a symbolic “north,” in a collective gaze at the “high” cultural spectacle of American oneness.

Like the Mexican homes in Tobar’s novel, Araceli approaches cultural identity as a collection, a made thing, more than a pure pedigree. She decorates her guesthouse apartment in Scott and Maureen’s backyard with “pictures cut out from the magazines Maureen discarded every month.” She collects images of hands from reproductions of famous paintings and from advertisements—another combination of so-called high and low styles. Presumably, most of the hands Araceli snips from Maureen’s magazines are “white.” With this in mind, Araceli’s cut-and-paste collection of hands recalls the image that introduces her in the novel: she looks through the kitchen window at Scott in the front yard wrestling with the lawnmower (unlike his father, Scott is not good with his hands, but removed from the manual labor in his family’s past), her “hands covered with a white-bubble skin of dishwater.” The soapy water wraps her hands like gloves, and one is left to wonder how well the gloves fit.  There is a sensitive distance, in any case, between Araceli’s Mexican hands worn from labor and the shimmering “whiteness” that covers them as she works in California.

Araceli most directly expresses her sense of heritage, and her self-image within that heritage, with the “garbage phoenix” that she sculpts from Maureen’s trash. Like Araceli’s travels in the U.S., the sculpture of the garbage phoenix “had the crude quality of an object formed by a series of haphazard and violent collisions,” and so “Araceli liked it both for its disturbing, otherworldly quality and as a commentary on her situation in the United States….” Araceli’s bird sculpture reflects not only her own migration, but also the cross-cultural collage that makes up the appearance of anyone in America. Ironic that a nation transplanted from Europe, a nation structured by a collage of federated states, has such difficulty recognizing the hopes of its latest immigrants.

With much wit, Tobar illustrates the multi-cultural currents that flow inside American children, too. At a reunion party for Scott’s old programming company, the children of his ex partners and employees leap into a swimming pool. Tobar writes, “With their mixed Asian, African, and European features, their epicanthic folds and proud Armenian noses, their Chinese cheekbones and Irish foreheads…they resembled a group of children Marco Polo might have encountered on the steppes of the Silk Road….” And yet this mixed lineage is precisely what many of the parents cannot acknowledge, as Maureen demonstrates when she expels Juan Torres, and thus the reminder that his presence brings of Scott’s Mexican heritage, from her home.

The roots of family trees do eventually break the surface, however.  Maureen’s reconstructed desert garden in her backyard suggests the Mexican, immigrant “crossing” implied by her hyphenated name. The “wild” desert garden, plopped in the walled-in backyard of a mansion in manicured Laguna, is not so dissimilar from Araceli’s collages. Araceli’s garbage phoenix, with its “collision” of pieces, suggests that her identity is an artifice. And both assemblages—garden and garbage sculpture—suggest that any vision, however “unified” and “natural” in the public eye, is pieced together, assembled out of camera shots and exclusive window views, “framed.”

Tobar’s narrative style matches his content: his use of shifting points of view imitates the various windows and screens through which his characters perceive each other and southern California. The reader experiences multiple visions of Araceli through the perspectives of a diverse cast of minor characters: friends of the Torres-Thompsons, Mexican and Korean and Pakistani and European denizens, cops and detectives, reporters, the mayor of Los Angeles, the Assistant District Attorney of Orange County, a famous Mexican talk-show host, American talking heads, Brandon and Keenan and their parents, and various protestors for and against immigrants. These characters tell themselves stories about Araceli based on their perceptions of her, and Tobar gets a lot of mileage out of comparing the assumptions behind these stories with Araceli’s interior experience.

Araceli rarely fits the reductive visions that her observers frame around her. She is brash, critical, ironic, and prone to aesthetic contemplations. She is questioning and sincere and unwilling to bargain away her sense of justice. She is a survivor, exigent and proud, and she is willing to begin again in Mexico or elsewhere in America, regardless of what those who control the image of her decide. She grudges. She dreams and loves. The reader’s immersion in her complex emotional life dissolves the surface impressions that other’s have of her. Araceli is an artist of herself, and her vision is re-creative, optimistic. Whereas Tod Hackett, in Nathanael West’s LA novel, desires to paint the stage-set city in flames, Araceli prefers to paint the unseen, edited-out people at the margins of the showcase spaces of LA, reconstructing rather than burning her experiences among the disenfranchised:

“[I]n the world away from the paradise of the Laguna Rancho Estates, there was the silver skin of taco trucks on Thirty-ninth Street, and the fat tortillas the hungry men and women workers raised to their mouths…She imagined a composition with orange and red explosions of fireworks in the background, and in the foreground the rabid teeth of a mob that marched and shouted. And why not the horizontal march of the electric transmission towers, and that corridor of feral grasses and palms, a road to unseen American provinces beyond?”

Araceli desires to paint her America, experienced outside of windows and screens, on the ground, on foot, beneath high-flown spectacles of American purity and exceptionalism. She places her loyalty with toiling hands, not the self-righteous visions of talking heads. Araceli keeps moving forward, stubborn and confident and hopeful that she will reinvent her identity once more. The greatest triumph of Tobar’s novel is the chin-up defiance of this immigrant artist turned housekeeper turned outlaw, whose rich personality cannot be summarized and contained by the flat visions of those around her.

Tobar’s sentences are as patient and precise as slow camera pans, whether capturing the perspective of a minor or major character. The effect is that each character gets his or her viewpoint, but none can see enough. None can say enough. No conclusive vision or voice on immigration is permitted. In a novel that spends much time describing the role of media-programmed, spectacular theater in the maintenance of cultural stereotypes, Tobar’s writing demonstrates faith in the continued power of language to resist superficial visions, to immerse readers in misunderstood places and people labeled “alien,” to open up the points of view in those people and places and encourage a tolerant ear for their stories. This very timely novel disrupts, like its cast of immigrant personalities, distinctions between “high” and “low” classes and cultures: remaining true to Araceli’s vision, Tobar sculpts a collage of multi-cultural perspectives into a high literary work that is generous, and grateful, to its mixed heritage. In this way, The Barbarian Nurseries is not only an artful portrayal of contemporary Los Angeles, it is ethical.

 

Review: The Barbarian Nurseries

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