Daily Archives: January 28, 2009

Word Porn: “The Tortilla Curtain” (1995)

Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined — and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us . . .

The term “social novel” tends to send most American critics running for the hills. It has come to imply a certain triteness, I think — some sort of vague abstraction that many see as having ironically died with the A-bomb, and ultimately distracting from the serious business of fiction writing. After all, shouldn’t all novels serve some sort of social function? It’s a question which brings us to the age-old debate between critics of the formalist and cultural poetic schools of literary criticism: what purpose does fiction serve? Are its motives didactic, instructional, and irrevocably indebted to the zeitgeist which birthed it? Or, does our understanding and appreciation of the text begin and end with the front and back cover?

T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is a thoroughly convincing, and often very painful, account of race relations in America. Examining the sometimes jarring discrepancies between thought and action, between ideas and their execution, Boyle effortlessly reminds us that politics are inescapable: they latch to our every move, are reflected in every minute decision we make, and — sometimes in very violent, cruel ways — collide with the sober realities of our increasingly fractured, paradoxically global society.

Delaney, one of the novel’s central figures, is a white male of priveledge. He’s a Sierra Club Liberal who prides himself in his ultimate breadth of empathy and understanding, in his connectedness with our precious and quickly-fleeting biosphere, in the progressive ideals which shape his view of America as a beacon for peace, love and understanding. After hitting  an undocumented immigrant with his car — Candido, the anti-hero of the novel’s intercalary chapters — Delaney, after paying off the Spanish-speaking homeless man and leaving him to what seems to be certain death, is forced to address what is essentially an American dilemma: how do we reconcile the ideological pillars on which our country was founded (Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. . .) with the social realities of our treatment of minorities, “documented” or not?

Why did [Delaney] keep thinking of shadowy black-and-white movies, men in creased hats leaning forward to light cigarettes . . . Because he was covering himself, that’s why. Because he’d just left that poor son of a bitch there alongside the road . . . and because he’d been glad of it, relieved to buy him off with his twenty dollars’ blood money. And how did that square with his liberal-humanist ideals?

The Tortilla Curtain, often bordering on a pastiche of American “dust bowl fiction,” gets most of its mileage from playing off of Steinbeck’s form in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s mammoth opus, Boyle’s novel makes no bones about its perceived job of providing social commentary. It’s unmistakably clear, through the heavy-handedness of the novel’s symbolic and pairing devices (a page straight from Steinbeck’s often criticized literary playbook) that Boyle wants us to use The Tortilla Curtain as an implement by which to consider the world around us. We should struggle, along with Delaney, to ask ourselves what it means to live in a free and democratic society — and what, after all, is less democratic than an impervious wall surrounding the American border?

Of course, the novel is more than the sum of its parts. Don’t expect a 300-page lecture on immigration legislation, or a constantly winking re-write of Candide, for that matter. Expect instead a deeply rewarding, compulsively readable, and uncompromisingly human and heart-wrenching affair which — while it may do little to answer that age-old question of purpose in fiction writing — renders in clean, muscular prose the very questions which will essentially define us and our relationship with the rest of the world.



Favorites: Souvlaki

*Note: Sorry that I have been absent the past few days.  I took a breather.  Thank you to Jezy for picking up the slack.




I don’t need to draw a line in the sand between My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, delineating one as superior to the other.  My admiration for the two has comingled peacefully for years.  The reason I say this is that there seem to be distinct subsets of shoegazer fans: those convicted to follow the Ride religion, Crane cohorts, Catherine Wheel spinners, etc.  Even with all of this gerrymandering, to ignore “Loveless” is to blaspheme against the State, but where does that put “Souvlaki”? 


Slowdive is certainly no forgotten act, but their stature never rose to MBV levels of cosmic ebullition.  Perhaps a certain amount of this can be explained by the fact that Slowdive didn’t evaporate into quite the same cloud of “what ifs” as Kevin Shield’s project.  The band followed their masterpiece (“Souvlaki”) with another astounding, if less-often heard, effort (“Pygmalion”).  They broke up and leader Neil Halstead formed the equally dreamy, if earthier, Mojave 3.  And he just released a new solo album.  So, yeah, I guess there is less blurry mystique behind Slowdive, but that doesn’t decrease the bliss of “Souvlaki”, which is easily one of my ten favorite albums of the ‘90s. 


“When the Sun Hits”





John Updike: 1932 – 2009

NPR.org, January 27, 2009 ·

John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 76.

Updike once claimed that he was 15 before he read his first novel, but thereafter, the author wasted little time in mastering the art of fiction. He published his first short story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in The New Yorker when he was 22, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, five years later.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike vowed early in his career to write a book each year. Working at this clip, he published more than than 25 novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poems, criticism, a memoir and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams.

Updike created his best-known character, a former high school basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run and later returned to the character in three more novels and a novella. . . (continue reading)

Interview with Updike (1995):

Part 1

Part 2