“My dream is that people will find a way back home, into their bodies, to connect with the earth, to connect with each other, to connect with the poor, to connect with the broken, to connect with the needy, to connect with people calling out all around us, to connect with the beauty, poetry, the wildness”
“Fucking Beaners. Rip it up, man. Destroy it.”
Jack Jr’s comment, when he and his friend stumble upon Candido and America’s camp in the arroyo can be difficult to read. We know more than this young man precisely because Boyle has described the lives of the people, America and Candido, whose belongings are being destoyed. The passage will also bring to mind for most readers the evening meeting at which Jack Cherrystone offers his disquisition on what is “real,” and it will anticipate the later conversation he has with Delaney Mossbacher in what can only be described as a surreal scene in the supermarket.
Jack Jr’s comment throws us out of the novel as well. It brings to mind the early 1990s in California when proposition 187 was passed, and then later repealed. His angry and confused words suggest a literary predecessor as well, John Steinbeck, who Boyle uses as an epigraph for his novel, and whose novel The Grapes of Wrath Boyle pays homage.
On Tuesday I asked us how this novel brings us back full circle to the writings of Ramanchandra Guha. His distinction between omnivores (consumers) and ecosystem people (workers)–as well as the massive asymmetries between abundance and scarcity, richness and poverty, is useful as we talk about this novel.
Guha is one among many thinkers who can help us think beyond the necessary but not sufficient forms of environmental concern in what he calls environmentalism’s first wave, including the emphasis on conservation, of “going green” and heading “back to the land; on preservation of resources, including land (parks, wilderness areas) and biodiversity; even on the movement beyond the suggestion that we engage, to circle back to Gary Snyder’s words in the “Preface to The Practice of the Wild, “in more than environmentalist virtue, political keenness, or useful and necessary activism. We must ground ourselves in the dark of our deepest selves.”
That passage in Practice goes on to say that a good part of that grounding takes place in “communities,” which exist whether we know it or not within the ‘natural nations’ shaped by mountain ranges, river courses, flatlands, and wetlands.” These places are inhabited, in more ways than many want to believe.
The Tortilla Curtain is up to a number of things. One of these things that readers find compelling is the way the story foregrounds the comfortable space in which environmental concern exists alongside a radically disconnected culture of consumerism predicated on social values (racism) that define “the way things are.”
One of the really interesting lessons here is the idea of thinking differently about the individual as a part of the world (ecological or systems or intersectional thinking, whatever modifier) and thinking this thought through the inevitable questions of access / equity / justice having to do with quality of life—for the individual thinking, and for others. This idea forces one to grapple with the patterns of production and consumption that have become so normative that we forget even how to question this pattern.
“Where is the justice?” Candido asks later in the novel, as he desperately tries to make some sense of the world around him.
I want to suggest that the “dream” in the words of Eve Ensler might find its place in a world less determined by the so-called “American dream” that has never been one accessible to all–as some people so desperately want to believe, and as The Tortilla Curtain so deftly makes clear.
Ensler’s word is “connect.” It is worth remembering that the very idea ecology rests on a capacity to think not of simply things, but of the ways things are only possible in a context of relations. The writer Timothy Morton has explained quite well on the radical implications of this idea, what he calls the “ecological thought.” The idea is in one sense found in words from environmental writers such as John Muir, who writes in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
However, the meanings and the history of the term ecology —both its origin and use in the scientific community as well as its resonance in the wider culture might take on a different hue when one considers Morton’s argument in The Ecological Thought (2010) :
“The ecological thought is difficult because it brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them” (9).
The ecological thought “forces us to invent ways of being together that don’t depend on self interest. . .the ecological thought can be highly unpleasant” (135).
“The ecological thought is about considering others, in their interests, in how we should act toward them, and in their very being” (123).
Which brings us back to the questions posed for this week:
How does this novel contribute to our understanding of environmental literature, and the discourse of environmentalism?
How do we read this novel into-and as a culmination of-the reading / thinking / discussion / writing we have done this semester?
On what terms might the people in this novel share a common future?
How do multiple voices share equal status (in an unequal society) in defining the future?
Writing about The Tortilla Curtain is one way to begin answering these questions.
Candido and America, Eddie From Ohio, from the album Quick (2001) and on the live album Three Rooms (2003).