Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange weaves together magic realism, ghetto slang, poetry, and sardonic wit to explore, among many other themes, the relationships between media, performance, and reality. While it was published in 1997, this lightning-paced novel expertly anticipates the many quagmires of 21st century epistemology and metaphysics.
Taking place in Mexico and Los Angeles, the story features a sampling of Los Angeles’ diversity with a dynamic cast of characters whose stories grow increasingly intertwined. In Los Angeles, we find Gabriel, a Chicano news reporter, and his girlfriend Emi, a fiery Japanese American TV executive, chasing leads and cutting footage in the fast-paced world of television. In the same city, Buzzworm, radio addict and “walking social services,” doles out support on the streets, and Bobby, a Singaporean Chinese who speaks Spanish, struggles to make a living. In Mexico, we find Bobby’s ex-girlfriend Rafaela preparing Gabriel’s dream home, located precisely at the Tropic of Cancer, and Arcangel, who performs the dual roles of laborer and street performer. And then there is Manzanar—a homeless Japanese American ex-surgeon who observes the human traffic of Los Angeles’ Harbor Freeway from an overpass, conducting symphonies only he can hear.
At the center of the novel is a single “aberrant orange,” a non-native Northern orange, the only one of its kind to survive to maturity on Gabriel’s Mexican property. The orange, tangled up in a thin, barely visible thread that happens to be the Tropic of Cancer, causes worlds to collide when it travels north, setting off a cataclysmic wreck on Harbor Freeway and a “spiked orange” media storm, dragging Mexico and “everything else South” into the North. The story reaches fever pitch as the homeless occupy the cars abandoned in the wreckage, Arcangel drags an entire bus northward for a final showdown with allusively named rival wrestler SUPERNAFTA, and the reader discovers surprising connections between Yamashita’s most seemingly disparate characters.
Underlying this dizzying narrative is Yamashita’s magical realism. Imbuing the text with an additional dimension of intrigue, it manifests itself most notably as physical incarnations of the abstract, spatiotemporal distortions, and the occasional glitches in a media constructed reality. In addition to giving physical form to the Tropic of Cancer, Yamashita plays with space and time by stretching, compressing, and otherwise distorting it. An “entire sushi bar seem[s] to tilt and sag with an indescribable elasticity” and a man sees bullets “curve in space” as they shoot towards him. Time similarly warps as in one instance “the past spread[s] out like a great starry fan and then folded in upon itself.” These distortions create not only a surreal effect but also a haunting commentary on 21st century epistemology and metaphysics. Yamashita’s spatiotemporal elasticity culminates in a disturbing vision of a warping universe “where the holes only seem to get larger and larger.” In a world with no fixed points of reference, reality only becomes more inscrutable as it continually changes, tilting and sagging as the sushi bar does. To put it succinctly as Manzanar does, “things are shifting.” An objective reality, if it ever existed, is harder than ever to uncover.
At this point, one probably wonders what is behind these momentous shifts. While Tropic of Orange presents a world whose “elastic” time just about obliterates cause and effect, Yamashita suggests that the media’s increasingly dominant role in modern society is in large part to blame. Remarking on his work as a reporter, Gabriel laments, “The news never stopped; it just kept coming twenty-four hours a day. It seemed that for every hour I worked on it, there was another half-hour hidden away that I had to catch up to. Time and a half… I was under time compression. The news stretched; time compressed.” Not only do modern forms of media distort and govern our time, but they also create new postmodern spaces whose relationship to reality is unclear. The Internet is perhaps the most salient of these ambiguous spaces. After Emi reveals that she cheated on Gabriel with someone “over the net,” she asks “Does that count?” her query belying the larger question of whether—or to what extent—the virtual is real. Neither Gabriel nor Yamashita answer. Ambiguities persist into the following passage: “Gabriel stared at the TV screen in Mexico city. Emi stared at it in the van. They saw the same simultaneous image, give or take for satellite lag and time code correction. Did their eyes therefore touch? Did this count?” Both the Internet and the news are revealed in this scene as virtual spaces where reality and meaning are questionable. Even as these media facilitate virtual moments of connection, we are left wondering whether they really matter or “count.” Modern media warps space and time and our sense of reality and meaning gets lost in the glitches.
There are moments in the text, however, in which the media loses its hold on reality and the magical takes its place. One such event is when the bus Arcangel is riding north on breaks down and he volunteers to drag it to its destination miles away. While Arcangel has performed feats of strength in his performances before, the bus greatly outweighs even the heaviest of props he has used. He succeeds against all reason and, try as they might, none of the dozens of news stations that eagerly gathered could capture the spectacle: “…live television had no way of accommodating actual feats of superhuman strength. The virtually real could not accommodate the magical. Digital memory failed to translate imaginary memory.” In these lines, Yamashita proposes magical realism and shared mythos as a counter to the often alienating media landscape of virtual reality.
While Yamashita’s use of the magical to counter the virtual does not alleviate the complexity of the postmodern world, instead further complicating our understanding of reality, it does help restore a grounding sense of shared humanity. In a world where modern media reduce people and places to digital images and events to 22 minute news segments, events that must be seen live to be believed reassure us of a shared reality apart from a virtual world constructed by the edits of the few. And while that “imaginary memory” may be more mythological than strictly real, it unites people with a version of reality free of vested interests and rich in collective resonance. The magic—and indispensable value—of mythos lies not in the veracity of its details but in its creation of a truth truer than facts. It is perhaps by magic alone, Yamashita suggests, that we can determine what is real and “what counts” in a world increasingly complicated by virtual media.
Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, and I Hotel, all published by Coffee House Press. I Hotel was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and awarded the California Book Award, the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award. She has been a US Artists Ford Foundation Fellow and is currently Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and the co-holder of the University of California Presidential Chair for Feminist & Critical Race & Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Yamashita is the recipient of an American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award. A California native who has also lived in Brazil and Japan, she teaches at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she received the Chancellor’s Award for Diversity in 2009. (Bio from Coffee House Press).