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How much does that American Dream cost?

Obama is on the slide. Romney is on the up-and-up. Biden and Ryan are just hours away from what both campaigns expect to be a barnstormer of a debate. All the while the world carries on. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker all go about their jobs. Or more than likely, the butcher is also the baker and the candlestick maker because the American Dream seems to be about working as many jobs as possible so as to afford lots of ‘things.’

The sacrifices inherent in living the dream life – the loneliness, the isolation, the debt-fuelled ulcers, the pornography watching 11 year olds – are obvious for all to see. That is assuming that people have time to stop and see.

In Hector Tobar’s novel, “The Barbarian Nurseries”, they don’t have time to stop and see. In fact, the protagonists go out of their way to avoid reflecting on where their faithful adherence to the American Dream has brought them to. A fictional Californian family, a fictional illegal immigrant and an almost farcical tale of miscommunication, lies and piecemeal understanding are the perfect illustration of the scale of the challenge facing America.

Theories of American Decline are plentiful. Descriptive tales of what such decline looks like are perhaps less plentiful. Tobar’s work is about the immigrant experience and about one family’s desperate attempt to keep itself together; at the same time it is much more, and in the weaving of wealth with isolation, of uncertainty with materialism, “The Barbarian Nurseries” brings us a tale of the costs of living the American Dream.

“For the 4th of July there would be no tickets to buy, no parking to pay for, no lines to form, but simply the joy of resting and having the show brought to them when the inky curtain of the post-sunset sky fell over the horizon.”

There can be little doubt that whichever of Obama or Romney wins on November 6th, the pressures of debt-filled, 21st Century living will continue. Extended families and friends will continue to be a “gallery of faces inside teak and cherrywood on the bookcases” and the Mexican maids in southern California will realise that their bosses are just as lonely and isolated as they are. Illegal immigration will remain as a difficult policy challenge long after Obama and Romney have left the stage, as will the national debt, abortion, tax reform, neither side willing to engage meaningfully with the other.

Perhaps most dishearteningly of all, the self-sorting of people into blue states and red states, means that there is decreasing desire to understand the other side. If people eat, sleep and pray with people just like them, who think, act and vote like them, what need is there to engage with the other side? What need is there to understand the full context of any particular issue or conflict? As Tobar’s illegal immigrant notes, “she saw now, they suffered from a disease of outlook in a chronic and advanced stage, a bloated and myopic way of life.”


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