Vol. 2 No. 2, Fall 1997 (#7)

Tropic of Orange

Karen Tei Yamashita

Coffee House Press ($14.95)

by David Kissinger

Every night, Rafaela closed tight the doors and windows to the house in Mexico that she was caring for, and every morning she swept crabs from under the bed, though the house was hours from the ocean. Meanwhile, a single orange grew out of season on the single orange tree brought from L.A. and planted to mark the location of the Tropic of Cancer, dividing the tropical from the temperate zone. A thin, threadlike line, like a shadow, extended from the orange in both directions over the horizon, as if the Tropic of Cancer were a feature of nature and not a line drawn by humans.

Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita's third novel, begins with such small anomalies, just discomforting enough, but they grow to epic and violent proportions. The orange falls to the ground and is picked up by a mysterious old man who carries it north to the U.S. border, literally dragging the thin line, the entire Tropic of Cancer, and the house with it. Odd things happen: bullets curve, the streets stretch and shrink (inciting new turf wars among the L.A. gangs), and U.S. oranges are quarantined for being poisonous as frenzied millions hoard them like gold bricks.

In the midst of these strange happenings is Gabriel, a Mexican-American reporter for a major Los Angeles newspaper who built the house in Mexico that Rafaela is caring for. He has been chasing after the coveted Pulitzer Prize while his girlfriend, Emi, a young television reporter, ridicules his old newspaper ways while she basks in the digital immediacy of broadcast news. They follow the news voraciously although others react with the pragmatic, sidelong glance of a public honed from overexposure to O.J. Simpson-style events.

And the newsworthy stories begin quickly. A homeless man stands on an overpass of the downtown Harbor Freeway and "conducts" the traffic with a baton as if it were an orchestra, while a Porsche collides with a tanker truck carrying thousands of gallons of fuel, creating a massive fireball that burns for days. People stuck in traffic have no choice but to abandon their cars, whichare quickly taken over by the homeless. Cars become homes and engines become vegetable gardens until the squatter city is surrounded by a faceless and grim L.A. Police Department. In an obvious reference to the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the results in this city are similarly disastrous.

With Tropic of Orange, Yamashita experiments with magical realism, the Latin American writing style that depicts bizarre happenings as normal and that propelled Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. While some newer Latin American writers are rejecting that writing style as too stereotypical, Yamashita keeps it alive, literally dragging it north to the U.S. and using it to clash and mix the two cultures in disturbing and clever ways. Even as the tropics come to Los Angeles, Gabriel goes to Mexico and meets Leftist rebels who give him a computer disk containing the names of massacred villagers. He downloads their memory, now a computer file, onto the Internet and saves online what no longer exists in the real world. In spite of, or perhaps because of this innovative storytelling and fantastic imagery, the novel cannot shake a sense of cartoonish animation, becoming a Super Heroes-like parody of itself.

At the same time, Yamashita's tone turns fast, urban, and breathless whenshe's writing about characters from L.A.'s poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods. Trying to give them a voice, she paradoxically flirts with ethnic stereotypes and distracts with one and two word sentences and choppy construction. Rather than reflect an "ethnic", "alternative" narrator, it just makes for dizzy reading.

This quick narration also causes cultural references to speed through the landscape, from the highbrow National Public Radio and L.A.-based books such as Mike Davis's brilliant City of Quartz to Spanish radio stations, loncherias, Prozac, and Books-on-Tape. Perhaps due to the cultural mix a few errors stand out, the most inexcusable of which mentions the original Spanish name of Los Angeles, "The Village of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of Porciuncula." Unfortunately, in the novel the "Queen of Angels" (in Spanish, la reina) is translated as "Reign of Angels" (el reino). This blatant editorial mistake casts light yet again on the fact that there are virtually no Hispanic editors in American publishing houses.

Still, as it dips into bizarre and unreal events, Tropic of Orange shows a U.S.-Mexico border that hits quite close to home. With the Tropic of Cancer leading the way, the South comes North to reclaim what it never really lost even as the North succumbs to a literal, physical twisting, curving, and relaxing of the landscape. The reader who is able to hold on to the roller coaster long enough and suspend disbelief will find in Tropic of Orange a wicked look at Los Angeles and at our world, where not even technological perfection can escape from the chaos of humanity.

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.com

Fall 1997 Table of Contents