Waiting for the Axe to Fall in ‘The Barbarian Nurseries’

Impending financial doom gives Héctor Tobar’s novel its tension.

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I remember exactly where I was when I first got an inkling that the disaster that would come to be known as the Great Recession was on the horizon. It was August 2007, and I was attending a box lunch on the first day of my MBA program at the University of Kansas. On that day, AIG had issued a grim warning that it was seeing mortgage delinquencies spreading from subprime to prime. Talk about a bad omen. My fellow students and I blithely ate our turkey-and-cheese sandwiches even as there was some nervous tittering among the faculty, and the semester unfolded in a blur of lectures on debits and credits and how to use carrots and not sticks.

But by the time I graduated, 16 months later, the world had fundamentally changed and the job market had largely dried up. I spent all of 2009 unsuccessfully applying to hundreds of jobs—an experience that would alter the trajectory of my entire adult life. Instead of entering the finance industry, I became a stay-at-home mother. I started writing. And the focus of much of my writing in those early years was an attempt to understand my own experience of unemployment and financial disaster within the context of the global economic meltdown. I also searched for novels that mirrored my experience and found very few, and I thus became fixated on the idea of an intersection between finance and fiction and, specifically, how financial realities could inform fictional spaces.

Most of us exist at the whim of market forces. The downturn of a stock price or a round of layoffs could spell certain doom for us and our families. Knowing the reality of this firsthand, I have a fondness, maybe even a passion, for books that foreground this precarious aspect of life in late-stage capitalism. So when I read Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries, I was pleased to watch the author suspend a gigantic and sharp axe above the Torres-Thompson family—in the form of a bad investment in securities—the threat of which then drives the family and their live-in maid, Araceli, to extremes and keeps us turning pages to see what form the disaster will take.

At the beginning, Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson seem comfortable in their affluence, but the reader can see the signs of imminent collapse all around them. Their large home perches on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, their tropical garden survives the dry coastal climate only with God-like intervention, and their fragile domestic peace rests on the backs of their nanny, their gardener, and Araceli. When we learn that Scott has made bad investments and lost a great deal of money, and when this causes him to fire both the gardener and the nanny, we see the gleam of the axe above the family and—just as Chekhov mandates that when a gun is introduced, it must eventually go off—we know that eventually the axe will fall.

Once the weapon is glimpsed, the novel turns into a slow-motion horror film, with all our collective financial fears standing in for a masked madman. Scott watches his savings drain in real time: “Turning the market into the graphs and charts of the type filling Scott’s flat-panel display created the illusion that it was a mathematical equation, that it obeyed rules.” Finding out that he and his family are not insulated from disaster, despite his careful planning, causes Scott to realize both his hubris and his impotence. In one scene, he panics and has a meltdown at his office in front of his employees. “Yes,” he thinks, “here I am in my cage, the boss who lives at the mercy of his wife’s weaknesses and wants.”

Maureen remains blissfully ignorant of their financial woes, only feeling the creeping panic when she pays for her new desert garden and worries whether the charge will clear. When Scott sees the bill and calculates the compound interest on his wife’s “obnoxious vanity,” he imagines she has locked him in a room whose walls are plastered with bills due, his many failures manifest in black and white, each charge one cut among a thousand.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell writes almost wistfully of the feeling of being plunged into economic ruin. “It is a feeling of relief,” he says, “almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” And true enough, relief comes for Scott and Maureen only once they’ve faced their own dogs and agree to live within their means. We are rewarded with an ending that befits Scott and Maureen, and one that feels earned within the greater narrative of Americans struggling through hard times.

We see the axe is about to fall, and yet we root for those under its blade every time.•

Join us on December 16 at 5 p.m., when Tobar will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to talk about The Barbarian Nurseries with your fellow California Book Club members.

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