Best L.A. Novel Ever: Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange vs. Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
In the opening pages of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, a British literature professor named George wakes up, washes, shaves, brushes his hair, gets dressed and eats breakfast. It's standard stuff, but Isherwood traces each step of the process with such startlingly minute intensity that we come gradually to understand George is building himself up from scratch, donning an unfamiliar body and willing this new jumble of synapse and meat to transform from "it" to "he":
"Fear tweaks the vagus nerve...But meanwhile the cortex, that grim disciplinarian has taken its place at the central controls...The legs stretch, the lower back is arched, the fingers clench and relax. An now, over the entire intercommunication system, is issued the first general order of the day: UP."
The source of the grief dissembling George so completely is the recent accidental death of his partner, Jim, and while Isherwood's sympathetic portrait of a relationship between two men was what propelled this novel into popular consciousness in 1964, it's worth noting that the book's power lies not in its unorthodox-for-its-time treatment of gay partnership, but in Isherwood's capacity for rendering loss. Over the course of the day, as George teaches, drinks and enters into a brief flirtation with a young student, his every action comes weighted by his desire to retreat back into nothing. It's this, Isherwood's grasp of what the relentlessness onslaught of the present in Los Angeles means for someone attempting to grieve the past, that makes A Single Man an essential L.A. novel.
Through George's eyes, L.A. comes in fragments: a sterile freeway, an empty beach, a ragged university campus, a steep set of stone steps into the hills, a mostly empty bar. These images combine to form a kind of eulogy, both for George, who by this point is little more than ghost haunting his own body, and for a city he can't quite reach. To understand the muted ache that pervades Isherwood's prose, it helps to also understand the pain of being stuck in traffic by yourself on the 405 at 6 pm, or reading alone at a Los Feliz café for too many hours on a Sunday afternoon, or sitting on your couch on a Friday night as the sun sets and the sky turns pink. A kind of loneliness that sometimes feels unique to this city is vital to George's entire way of being.
When Tom Ford's film adapation of A Single Man came out in 2009, some critics complained that, while the visuals were rich and heartfelt, the narrative was empty, an impressive feat of art direction arranged around a core of negative space. This is a facile critique of a film directed by a fashion designer, and it's also entirely off base: that negative space already existed in the book, placed at the heart of the story by Isherwood, not Ford. George is man whose most fervent desire is not to exist, and the book is a chronicle of his coming closer and closer to that goal. It was that tension between the nothingness George wants to become and Isherwood's vivid, visceral writing that drew readers to Isherwood's novel in the first place.
If you prefer your novels loud, ambitious, far-flung and manic instead of quietly devastating, it seems, on the surface at least, that Karen Yamashita's Tropic of Orange ought to be more to your liking. Stretching from Rosarito to West Hollywood and all along the Harbor freeway, Yamashita's narrative tasks itself with rendering the barely controlled chaos of the California/Mexico border into prose. The author writes with the kind of headlong fury James Wood might have called hysterically realist and PhD candidates tend to call Postmodern. This kind of expansive, all-encompassing concept-driven book could have made for a virtuouso examination of L.A. on par with, say, Zadie Smith's White Teeth or Don DeLillo's Underworld, but what we get instead is a lightly-veiled academic critique of several dozen of the kinds of "isms" -- multiculturalism, classism, racism and magical realism chief among them -- that tend to turn up in undergraduate ethnic and social studies classes.
If you Google Tropic of Orange what you'll get, mostly, are services offering up critical essays for pay, and postings by desperate-seeming high school students asking if someone won't please tell them what this book is about. This is a shame considering the awesome potential for mass appeal of Yamashita's many-tentacled story. Told in 49 chapters through the voices of seven different characters, Yamashita's novel tracks the seven days leading up to what might turn out to be the utter destruction of California. In one subplot, an old laborer who may be immortal transports an orange out of Mazatlan, Mexico. The orange drags with it the Tropic of Cancer, distorting the borders of California and causing apocalyptic traffic jams. As commuter yuppies flee their cars, the homeless move in, transforming the 405 into a kind of revitalized tent city.
Meanwhile, Emi, a Japanese-American newscaster and Gabriel, her Mexican-American reporter boyfriend, investigate the seemingly random poisoning deaths of several Los Angeles citizens. Caught up in the whirl are a black social reformer named Buzzworm, a shapeshifting thug who trafficks infant organs, and a Japanese veteran who conducts the city like an orchestra from his spot on a freeway overpass. That's a lot to cram into one novel -- too much, probably, and in Yamashita's hands, it all falls together into a gloopy mess, a kind of critical/analytical hyper-literary version of Paul Haggis' 2004 movie Crash.
It's hard to criticize a book written whose motivations for existing are so obviously legitimate, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. For me, it was around the time the old man borrowed from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story showed up and began communicating solely in lines of very bad activist poetry:
Look to the past and know the doom awaits you!
The doom of discovery!
The doom of conquest!
And worse yet,
Who among the discoverers
Did not plant their seed in this land of discovery?
Now all is lost! We will pay dearly!
I, Chilam Quetzal, the soothsayer, have spoken.
The director Paul Schraeder once wrote that a good story is about something, but it's also about something else. Yamashita's lines here are, for the most part, only about themselves. As a result, the book fails on the level of the sentence; too often, the language reads like automatic writing, all the onus put on the reader to supply meaning:
"Now, it was Monday, and he awoke. He awoke to all the metaphors that come from the land. He had followed a path across the continent that was crooked, but always heading north. Now he was in Mazatlan. He could hear the waves lapping at the edges of the sand, feel the already heating breezes flowing from the Sea of Cortes."
Here, a reference to the city of Mazatlan may be working to call up the Spanish word "Aztlan," the Nahautl word for the mythical place of the origin of the Aztec peoples, while the mention of the Sea of Cortes brings conquering whiteness to mind. Too much of the novel is like this -- signifying prose designed to provoke a specific response, and deployed with single-minded political intent. There's a difference between the magical realism Yamashita may have been attempting (or attempting to satirize) and lazy allegory, and the border between the two is one this novel crosses all too often.
Too, Yamashita tends to commit the same essentialist crimes she seems to be railing against. As a black female reader, I was put off by the pat imitations of African-American dialect and the presence of the ever-ubiquitous Magical Negro savior figure in Buzzworm. When Tropic of Orange does bring up problems relevant to life as a person of color in in L.A, the solutions the novel proposes ultimately don't make sense: The novel climaxes, for example, in a heavily symbolic wrestling match between the Very Old Man With Enormous Wings and NAFTA.
Isherwood, for his part, explores L.A.'s marginalized communities with fewer words and less fanfare. And while his approach to multiculturalism leaves a lot to be desired (the non-white characters in this novel tend to exist primarily via interactions with white characters) each individual remain memorable because Isherwood allows them to be people, rather than symbols. With A Single Man, Isherwood created a book that, like all novels that stick around, uses fiction to tell the truth. Meanwhile, as the borders of Los Angeles threaten to collapse in Tropic of Orange, the drama falls flat. Yamashita's L.A. never felt like mine.
Winner: A Single Man