I’ve been hearing a lot of praise for Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries and the LA Review of Books has a good review of it. The story naturally interested me although I’ve been a little hesitant because the search for the novel of [insert name here] seems a hopeless task, one that is never reachable because the frame of reference always changes. But for our time this sounds like the LA Novel. I have added it to the list. You can here an interview with him on Bookworm.
Whenever the question comes up as to why there hasn’t been a quintessential novel about Los Angeles, the notion that the place is just too diffuse is bandied about, as if writers are incapable of writing a novel which can address a territory larger than, say, the island of Manhattan. Certainly there are novels that lay claim to parts of L.A., be they classics, like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust or Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, or contemporary works, like Janet Fitch’s Paint it Black or Eric Puchner’s Model Home (to say nothing of the city’s rich tradition of noir and crime fiction). But none has ever seemed to capture the paradox-ridden profundity of the grit and the glamour, the farm worker and the starlet, the 405 North and the 5 South, the 10 West and the 60 East, the Pacific Coast Highway, and the tracks filled with empty Metrolink trains. There is the Los Angeles on the maps; the Los Angeles that is actually Orange County; the sprawling, urban Los Angeles that only stops when you hit the Salton Sea; the Los Angeles that exists on television screens in other states, where the surf comes right up to your front yard.
Diffuse? Certainly. Impossible to represent in its fullness? Certainly not, as Héctor Tobar proves with his astonishing second novel, The Barbarian Nurseries. Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, has crafted a novel that examines the smallest people — both literally and figuratively — who populate our shared landscape, while casting a wide view on the culture created behind the walls of gated communities, within the vast inland sea of interracial bedroom communities, and on the lost streets beneath the highways, where entire lives play out in the shadows of passing SUVs.
These worlds are viewed chiefly through the eyes of Araceli Ramirez, Mexican servant to Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson and their three young children. Araceli is the last remaining household worker for the Torres-Thompsons (the novel is filled with hyphenates: proof, it would seem, that the alleged melting pot of Southern California more closely resembles a too-hot double boiler), the rest having been let go when Scott realized that the family’s personal recession was not going to rebound. It’s an uptown problem: While they live in a seven-figure home in the exclusive Laguna Rancho Estates, can afford to send their children to private school, and enjoy all the trappings of opulence, Scott’s family is, if not broke, quietly slipping into the middle-class: