Prospectus: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997)
This prospectus is for a paper I am writing on Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. I know that my thesis is still unclear and that I will definitely run into “definitional” problems concerning my use of the terms postmodern, magical realist, etc. but any thoughts or suggestions for secondary sources will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange prevents any easy genre classification and instead figures as an intriguing blend of magical realism, science fiction, postmodernism, and apocalyptic narrative. Borrowing its structure and style from these diverse literary traditions enables the novel to reflect as well as engage the chaotic cultural and socio-political changes engendered by global capitalism and transnational migrations. Consequently, the text’s hybridity makes it both a representation and product of globalizing forces. It is ultimately this unique dual-role that allows Tropic to intervene in numerous discourses concerning globalization’s impact on national and individual identity formation, movements of labor and capital, and shifting territorial and ideological borders. However, while many critics have addressed the novel’s treatment of these issues, few have examined in detail the significance of its structure and narrative style, particularly, Yamashita’s use of science fiction and magical realism as mediums to discuss how technological and economic changes transform our conceptions of self and nation, local and global.
For instance, in “‘We are Not the World’: Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange” Sue-Im Lee argues that the novel’s “fantastic genre” contributes to a revitalized vision of the “global village” that emphasizes voluntary and reciprocal participation among people and nations (521). Only by encouraging mutual involvement in a global community, she asserts, can we retrieve the critical potential of universalism and make progress in our demands for human rights and improved interethnic and intercontinental relations. But the brevity of her discussion of what this “fantastic genre” entails also perpetuates ambiguity and fails to communicate the complexity of Yamashita’s vision, which is necessarily informed by her structural and stylistic choices. In addition, even those scholars who choose to analyze the novel’s science-fictional and magical realist elements often relegate these fantastical qualities into realms of metaphor and imagination. In “Tropics of Globalization: Reading the New North America,” Molly Wallace asserts that the “tracking of metaphor” will encourage us to reexamine “discourses on globalization produced in the United States” (146). She therefore implies that bizarre features, such as the novel’s warping of time and space, its materialization of borders and employment of literal topographical shifts, primarily serve a discursive role. Johannes Hauser’s “Structuring the Apokalypse: Chaos and Order in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange” presents a tantalizing image of Los Angeles as a “cyborg city” only to later qualify this claim by re-labeling LA as an “imaginary city” (25). These critics share a preoccupation with connecting the novel’s chaotic narrative structure and at times absurd plot devices to its “logical” place as products of human creativity and imagination. But in making this connection, they ignore the material implications of Yamashita’s endeavors in Tropic of Orange.
My paper will demonstrate how the novel’s science-fictional and magical realist elements do not represent mere abstractions of fancy, but rather depict in more concrete terms the cultural, societal and political changes facilitated by globalization. I argue that Yamashita’s reliance on these bizarre and fantastical elements confronts us with the very real transformations occurring within our natural world, our communities, and in our intimate interactions with each other and our own bodies. In order to communicate these ideas, I will concentrate on a structural and stylistic analysis of the novel, paying particular attention to how Yamashita relies on influences from science fiction and magical realism to shape our reading experience, compelling us to recognize with greater urgency that the boundaries between what we consider as bizarre or impossible and our familiar, lived experiences are not as distinct as they once were. For instance, I hope to extend Hauser’s idea of the “cyborg city” and cyborg individuals by demonstrating how Yamashita’s imagery and diction in Tropic of Orange portray the growing interconnectedness between technology and the organic. Whereas the city’s physical structures are imbued with living characteristics, the humans in the novel often perceive machines as extensions of their own bodies. This jarring convergence of living and nonliving elements only reinforces already evident truths, which is fore-grounded by Yamashita herself when she proclaims in the preface: “Gentle reader, what follows may not be about the future, but is perhaps about the recent past; a past that, even as you imagine, it happens.”This emphasis on the novel as a story about the “recent past” that “happens” while we are imagining and reading, implies that what we perceive as fiction actually inhabits a reality we are currently living.
The slippages that occur between the imaginary/virtual and the real in Tropic of Orange therefore make Bruce Sterling’s theory of “slipstream fiction” vital to my paper. He claims that “[T]he heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’” Ultimately, his conception of the fluid borders between fantasy and ordinary existence sheds light on Yamashita’s novel and its central concerns. Not only can the text be labeled as a representative of slipstream fiction, but its structural and stylistic intertwining of the bizarre and the mundane also serves as a commentary on the blurring of bodies and boundaries in globalization. In my paper I hope to demonstrate how the slippages we witness in the novel have larger cultural and societal implications on the ways we understand and perceive national and individual identity as well as persisting racial and economic inequalities in a globalized world. Consequently, I argue that Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange challenges the notion of isolated socio-political issues and closed national and cultural spaces, accentuating the interconnectedness that defines human existence.
Buell, Frederick. “Nationalist Postnatinalism: Globalist Discourse in Contemporary American Culture.” American Quarterly 50.3 (1998): 548-591. Print. (Annotation)
Chuh, Kandice. “Of Hemispheres and Other Spheres: Navigating Karen Tei Yamashita’s Literary World.” American Literary History 18.3 (2006): 618-637. Print. (Annotation)
Davis, Mike. “Fortress L.A.” City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print. (Annotation)
Hauser, Johannes. “Structuring the Apokalypse: Chaos and Order in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” PhiN: Philologie in Netz 37 (2006): 1-32. Print.
Lee, Sue-Im. “‘We are Not the World’: Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 52.3 (Fall 2007): 501-527. Print. (Annotation)
Wallace, Molly. “Tropics of Globalization: Reading the New North America.” Symploke 9.1-2 (2001): 145-160. Print. (Annotation)
Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997. Print.