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Rescripting Armageddon in Tropic of Orange

Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel of a dystopic ’90s L.A. tangles with both disasters and distractions.

By Warren Liu

As Mike Davis notes in Ecology of Fear (2000), Los Angeles is a city with a “propensity for spectacular disaster,” both real and imagined. Even during those rare periods when the city is actually disaster free, it nonetheless faces constant destruction in movies, on television, and in books; in the collective imagination, the city burns and burns.  As Davis suggests, the “Los Angeles” of popular culture is a symbolic stand-in for persistent and unresolved national unease about issues of race and class. To see the city repeatedly destroyed is thus an act of exorcism, the imagined disasters providing momentary respite from our anxieties and the truth they hide: we’ve already seen—again and again—the inevitable results of our refusal to enact serious and systematic challenges to the exploitation and inequality that underwrite those anxieties in the first place.

This helps explain why those inevitable results are always both shocking and predictable. This past April, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the L.A. Riots, I tuned in to KCRW 89.9’s hive-mind act of remembrance, experiencing it all over again in the disembodied voices coming over the airwaves (what “it” is, or was, depends on who you ask, but take your pick: the Rodney King riots, an uprising, civil unrest, Sa-I-Gu...). Behind each memory is a nagging set of questions, sometimes voiced, sometimes not: Should I still be afraid? Have we figured out the problem yet? Will we ever figure out the problem? Will it happen again? Given the patterns and precedents—think Watts, think Sleepy Lagoon—one can’t help but answer, even if unwillingly: of course. Of course it’s going to happen again. Why isn’t it happening all the time?

Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange proposes one possible answer to this last question, and it seems fitting, as we remember the riots, to review that work’s fascinating re-scripting of our recurrent narratives of Los Angeles Armageddon. If, following Davis, most filmic and novelistic representations of Los Angeles’s destruction are essentially futile acts of collective navel-gazing, then Yamashita’s novel directs our gaze to navels of a different sort. The navels in question are oranges, and the novel features two, both of them rather unusual.

For, although there are seven main characters in Yamashita’s novel, the real stars are the oranges. As the novel opens, the first orange has grown in such a way as to embed within it—like a tree-limb around an electric wire—the Tropic of Cancer, which has somehow become physically solid and eerily elastic. As the orange moves north, so too does the Tropic, bringing along with it all the various peoples, products, and even histories of the global south. The second orange, also originating from South America, is laced with a concentrated form of liquefied cocaine (“concentrated” o.j. of an entirely different order) with the capacity to produce an ecstatic high, of which the only downside is sudden death. This second orange, it turns out, is merely one of an unspecified number of citric containers—a brilliantly innovative vessel for the storage and transport of narcotics never intended for distribution in their raw form.

Following the movement of these oranges, Yamashita’s novel makes tangible the tangled, unseen connections between geography and (drug) traffic, politics and palm trees—that for most of us remain largely invisible. The tangling is both literal and figurative. The Tropic moves north, but as it does, it also stretches northward the ostensible border between the United States and Mexico, figuratively snarling the boundaries of both geopolitical states and economic territories. Also tangled is the novel’s web of sub-plots, which includes a city-wide aural hallucination, climaxing in the synchronized inflation of countless air-bags; an epic, fiery pileup jamming one of the freeway system’s main arteries; and, perhaps strangest of all, a surreal lucha libre match between “El Gran Mojado” (“The Big Wetback”) and “SUPERNAFTA.” Yamashita asks us to decide which of these are truly disasters, and which ones are simply spectacular distractions.

It’s not an easy judgment to make, and one of the novel’s strengths is its uneasy and ambiguous conclusion or conclusions (there’s more than one way to read this book, as it provides both a traditional table of contents and an alternate “hypercontexts” page). While much of the pleasure in reading Tropic of Orange lies in seeing how skillfully Yamashita plots its disparate storylines into a cohesive whole, the meaning behind such careful “plotting” is ultimately left unexplained. Although the “hypercontexts” page lays bare almost every element of the novel’s formal structure, exposing the intricacies of its plot (without being a part of the plot itself), it’s not entirely clear why Yamashita grants this holistic overview to the reader. As is often the case with magical realism, however, it’s the inversion of terms that provides some clue to the novel’s underlying message. Indeed, without giving too much away, what seems at first the most magical plotline becomes, by its conclusion, the novel’s most depressingly real (though not realistic) disaster. And in contrast, what appears to be the more realistic disaster turns out to be simply another instance of magical, wishful thinking.

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem entirely delusional to ask a question like, “Can we all get along?” Most memorably posed by Rodney King after the 1992 riots, the question demonstrates a startling naïvete; its idealistic hopefulness almost masks the underlying anxiety of its correlate questions: “When will it happen again? Why isn’t it happening all the time?” Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange asks us to consider these questions from an oddly structural perspective. Indeed, we see what her characters simply cannot: their own reproduction as subjects caught in an exploitative economic system. In so doing, the novel both illuminates the mechanisms that prevent us from getting along, and dramatizes how deeply dependent capitalism’s survival remains upon our continuing to not get along (even if that leads to the occasional riot here and there). Read in the context of post-1992 Los Angeles, Yamashita’s novel almost seems like science fiction, for what it really gives us is a momentary utopia: a week in which the entirety of the world system becomes chaotically entangled, unveiled, and yes, even vulnerable. Wishful thinking, you might call it. I’d call it magic, of the best kind.