Symbols and Meaning, or Saturn, Lead, and Limes oh my

Saturn is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Kronos, the father of the Olympian gods.  According to myths, Kronos/Saturn heard a prophesy that one of his children was going to overthrow him so he took up the nasty habit of eating his offspring.  Needless to say, his wife, Rhea, was not too pleased with this behavior so one day she decided to hide her newborn instead of giving it over to Saturn to eat.  The son she saved, Zeus in the Greek, Jupiter in the Roman, grows up and rebels against his father, eventually freeing his siblings from his father’s stomach.  This myth bears similarities to the rebellion acted out by the characters in the book against the author.  The myth also transforms the relationship between creator and created to that of father and children.  I also think that its interesting that the author chooses Saturn, the second biggest planet in our solar system, to represent himself.  One might interpret this identification as a way of compensating for his diminutive stature which he seems very self-conscious of.

When I read that the people of Monte were using lead to shield themselves from Saturn (this was before it became clear that Saturn stood for the author), I thought of the Roman empire which used lead to make pipes.  This form of manufacturing lead to a lot of sickness, and I think some have argued, contributed to the fall of the empire.  This association with decay and ruin leaches over into the ideas of psychological repression, marking it as an unhealthy activity.  The definition for lead in J.C. Cooper’s An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols further ties the metal with the book.

“In Alchemy lead is the heavy ‘sick’ condition of the metal or of human existence or the soul; it is the base metal, density, the opaque bodily consciousness, unregenerate man, subject of the work of transforming and transmuting.  The metal of Saturn” (96).

Like the lead, I think the limes that Little Merced eats are another example of repression and its destructive power.  She keeps her lime consumption a secret from her father and it eventually makes her sick.  Federico’s fear of confronting the loss of his wife drives him to seek refuge under a poisonous umbrella.  One might take this a step further and argue that Federico’s unwillingness to share his feelings and secrets with his daughter sets a bad example for her (she probably knows something’s wrong; there has to be a reason why the mother left) and his secrets end up hurting her.  If we consider Rachel Adams’s thesis from last week, that there is some kind of shift between Cold War lit and post Cold-War lit, I would say that the reactions of Federico and the EMF, their desire to cut themselves off from another entity are reminiscent of a Cold War mentality of paranoia and polarization.  They don’t hide behind an Iron Curtain, but they do hide behind a lead one.  It is when the truth comes out, words are exchanged, that people break away from repetitive and stagnant positions and seem to recover.  This also relates to trauma theory in that the people who can rewrite painful experiences and somehow integrate them into their metanarrative (as Salvador Plascenia is clearly doing) are able to recover.

One final thought on limes- limes are a sour fruit, not a sweet one, hence not usually associated with enjoyment.  Little Merced’s constant consumption of limes seems semi-masochist and parallel to the self-pitying and rumination on lost love that permeates the novel.   



limes- caustic, secret, eating, damaging

Broad spectrum, closed system

I can somewhat understand Adams’s argument about the differences between The Crying of Lot 49 as a closed paranoid space and The Tropic of Orange as an open space.  Still, as much as Tropic of Orange honors diversity and expresses a multi-national vision, there were a couple of images that struck me as Pychon-esqe and drew attention to the restraints of society that could lead to paranoia and anxiety like that of the Cold War era.  

First and most obviously, the contaminated orange scare, while not as devastating as a nuclear attack, is still far reaching in its impact.  Global markets are a wonderful innovation because they allow people to have fresh produce almost everywhere even when something is out of season.  On the other hand though, the different standards of health inspection in different countries and the difficulty of tracing where some imports come from can make a food scare as random and potentially as harmful and frightening as a terrorist attack.

The highways so prominently featured in Crying Lot and Tropic of Orange connect nations and people are a fantastic invention because they allow for greater freedom to movc about and provide for greater transparency and acceptance between cultures.  At the same time though, these paths often become blocked with congestion and accidents, which, far from liberating, can be confining, frustrating, and dangerous.  The character of Manzanar Murakami, the homeless music of the traffic conductor, reminds me of Pynchon and his novel V., which deals with the ideas of closed systems and entropy, the inevitable breakdown of order in any given closed system.  The highways in Tropic become closed, toxic, destructive systems when accidents occur and yet Murakami seems to accept this.  Personally, I hate traffic and traveling, even when I’m speeding along uninterrupted so the idea of someone watching traffic and watching traffic disasters and somehow integrating it into something beautiful, a work of art, is astonishing to me.  Murakami seems to voice Pynchon’s belief that the breakdown of order cannot be avoided so one might as well celebrate.  In the novel V., Pynchon creates a metaphor for the contemporary person, writing that we are all sailors on sinking ships, but we can still paint the ship as it goes down, a sentiment that seems reflected in Murakami.

Another detail in Tropic of Orange that seemed to change the setting into a closed system was the brief exchange at the end of chapter 20.  A woman in the restaurant says ‘”I happen to adore Japanese culture.  What can I say?  I adore different cultures.  I’ve traveled all over the world.  I love living in L.A. because I can find anything in the world to eat, right here'” (129).  The odd thing about this statement is that is takes ethnic diversity and reduces it to a commodity to be consumed, literally.  L.A. becomes a microcosm of the world, a concentrated mass of multi-culturalism.  If one believes that L.A. contains everything one could want from another culture, then hasn’t that other culture been simplified and restricted?

Postmodernism and Place

Sarah briefly mentioned place in her blog post and that got me thinkin’. Since many folks out there have already weighed in on the Adams article, I decided I would go elsewhere with this post and try to make sense of place in some of the novels we have read.

The notion of place seems to be pretty flexible in postmodern texts. In gothic literature, for example, place is often easily described as antiquated. In genres like fantasy and sci-fi, place also fluctuates but tends to follow some basic rules (outer space, past feudal realms). Many people have posted about how difficult it is to place postmodernism within any strict walls or interpretive confines. I agree that this is tricky and as I’ve read books from The Crying of Lot 49 to House of Leaves to Tropic of Orange, I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be any conventions that strictly define place in postmodernist writing.

As I looked closer I found that there is little overlap in location: Beloved occupies a small space in the rural South; The Crying of Lot 49 takes place in bustling, crowded cities across California. The size of the places also changes: there are the small confines of a house that can also grow to enormous proportions in House of Leaves; the small (but ever-changing) office where much of Lathe of Heaven occurs; Tropic of Orange sprawls all over LA and in Mexico too, across landscapes both vast (the urban ghetto, the highway systems) and localized (the house near Mazatlan). Places can occupy just about any form in postmodern texts, from rural to urban, small to large.

It’s how place feels to the reader and how it is handled by the characters in the stories that I think give many of the places we’ve read about a common characteristic: they are unreliable, sometimes to the point of becoming untrustworthy. Why do I see some of the places in this semesters novels as unreliable? How does this relate to postmodernism?

I don’t think anyone will disagree that the space in House of Leaves is unreliable. The house shifts, it changes, at times it attempts to trap people inside. However, the novel also takes place in the world of Johnny Truant. Johnny begins the novel with some forays into the city, but by the end, he is as shut-in as Zampano, with drapes over the windows and cardboard blocking the vents. Not only does he not trust his own space, he doesn’t trust the space outside.

In Crying of Lot 49, everything seems to be untrustworthy. Oedipa travels around to different cities, and as she does this, I never feel a strong sense of the location. Each city seems the same. What makes them important is that they conceal the hidden clues she so desperately seeks. Each place sends her to a new location, all another stopping point on a journey that leads pretty much nowhere. Those are some unreliable locales.

In Tropic of Orange place seems to be more reliable than these other two, but is it? Crabs in Mazatlan, located hours’ walk from the sea, signify that something isn’t right. Gun shots on the east side may be an every day part of life, but for Buzzworm, it can all be avoided, the space can be reclaimed–from the beuracrats, from the gangsters who do their best to claim it, from the vicious cycles that occupy that space and keep revolving and threatining to never let anyone out. Gabriel’s unreliable space takes the form of a two-headed monster: the quiet Mexico or the bustling LA where he can continue working as a journalist. These spaces all bring with them a strong sense of unreliability. This is not the house you grew up in or the bustling city that represents opportunity. No, these spaces, even when they’re at their best, are ever-changing, sometimes alien landscapes.

Manzanar seems to be one character who finds the space he occupies–highway corridors–to be reliable. However, upon closer expection, we see that they are only reliable as far as his music goes, but not reliable as a whole. Crashes occupy this wide-lane space and Manzanar also summons images of maps. Maps can be reliable, but for anyone who has used one knows they are subject to change. Unexpected, sudden change that leaves you at the end of a dead-end road, just miles from your ultimate destination in the middle of the night, wondering, “what do I do now?” The maps in this book also have layers–“for Manzanar they began with the very geology of the land…” (57). These multi-layered maps become so thick in their complexity and construction as to render them too numerous and too specific to serve much use at all. In chapter 13 Buzzworm thinks about maps and how little they really do to help. He sums this up with the early line, “if someone could put down all the layers of the real map, maybe he could get the real picture” (81). Only if all the layers are assembled can the maps provide a clear picture–and as the tone suggests, this will never happen. So even maps become unreliable in Tropic of Orange.

Some of the other novels we’ve covered also deal with unreliable places, but I felt that these were some of the shining examples. Places change, but their unreliability in postmodern texts seems to be relatively constant.

In postmodernism many aspects of life (language, morals, truth, etc.) are shown as constructs of society that we all end up buying into. In a postmodern novel, the author may investigate these constructs, and in so doing, help shed some light on their existence (the constructs’), which is usually enough to get people thinking. I can’t help but want to channel Saussure when thinking of place, who wrote about the signifier and signified in linguistics. I believe that while he mainly focuses on words, the same can be said for place. The signifier “home” or “city” will mean many different things to any number of different people (the signified). New York is the symbol of American freedom, LA of opportunity and fame, DC of power. However, to the people who visit and occupy these spaces year round, the cities become many different things. This may be part of the reason spaces seem so hard to trust in the works we’ve read. After all, when a space means something different to everyone occupying it, and seems ever-changing, there isn’t a lot to rely on. Just below the surface the labels we apply to certain locales (the peaceful setting of the South, the emblematic American cities) suddenly vanish. Each person takes something different away from their place. Each one views their place differently as well. I believe this root of unreliability is essentially postmodern becauyse it’s not only the observed that’s important, but who’s doing the observing, how they observe, and what that says about the unique spaces we all occupy and how they shape our unique perspectives.


I’d first like to just say that I think Yamashita’s use of music in her novel is beautiful. The book is written sort of like a song – with different characters working their way in and out of the text like instruments. I know it sounds really cheesy, but that’s the first thing that struck me. Small themes brought up in the beginning of the novel lead to great catastrophes or large events later on. Then, of course, there is the conductor who directs traffic. This, in and of itself, is a lovely image that lends itself to the text’s lyricism.

The movement of traffic is one thing that I think Adams explained nicely in her article. I like how she compared the freeway vein and impossible circuit of Pynchon’s California to Yamashita’s more musical and, in strange ways, hopeful freeway. I also like how she emphasized that Yamashita’s novel suggests the freeway is less crucial to the vital functions of a city. One infrastructure stalling doesn’t guarantee apocalypse. In the same way, the characters that survive are historically connected rather than flailing, and if they fail, that failure won’t necessarily destroy them. Adams makes some great points comparing the texts. I don’t think she’s disparaging Pynchon either – she’s more just calling attention to thematic and stylistic differences. In some ways I think the differences are just that (thematic and stylistic), and not necessarily bookends for an entire literary period. I feel like there’s a point where constantly arguing back and forth about whether something is postmodern just bogs it down and detracts from what we can get from the writing.

One thing I find strange was the emphasis placed on California, as if it’s this entirely different world and the center of everything. Maybe it is. At one point Yamashita mentions Joan Didion, and I kept thinking of her California freeway essay (and other CA essays) as I read the Adams article – how she made a game of the freeway, how she studied the freeway system, and felt completely connected to it. If California is this big a deal in the grand scheme of whatever postmodernism is, I sort of feel less connected to it than to Pynchon’s random red herrings and Cold War references.

There were a few other things I was wondering about. One was dialect – how did this strike other people? Adams mentions it in her article. At first I was wary of it because there are so many different conversational things happening, and for some reason I kept getting pulled from the story and thinking about screenplay dialogue. I’m not really sure why. But I see Adams’ point – that the use of dialect emphasizes a convergence of “underrepresented” people – I just wonder how accurate a representation it is.

The magical realism is also pretty stunning. In a weird way, it reminds me of Beloved – I guess just because it’s there, in this otherwise realistic piece. Perhaps the unreal elements sweeping into daily life emphasize the unreality or strangeness of real daily life.

Adams Article

I do not agree with Rachel Adam’s assertions that postmodernism is somehow over, or that Tropic of Orange represents some sort of seismic shift in American literature that we will all inevitably follow.

First, a little defense of The Crying of Lot 49.  Yes, I can understand that students respond to the text as if it is some sort of cruel hoax.  That is because the novel is cruel in a way; it cannot be neatly wrapped up in a bow, it does not have a conclusive ending.  The problem does not lie in the novel, it lies in the students, and also in the education system in the era of N.C.L.B. (I’ve been trying to get everyone to call it “Nickelby”, but it does not seem to be catching on).  I do not want to go on an extended rant about education, but basically, the emphasis on standardized texting has led to a generation of students who are only interested in issues that are clearly black/white.  Students today cannot stand ambiguity, it makes them nervous.  To me, that is even more of a reason to continue teaching Pynchon, to take students out of their comfort zones.  If I decided that every novel that my students did not like was no longer relevant, then I would be stuck teaching Twilight and that book by the  Jon & Kate Plus Eight parents.

Also, if her students are unable to identify “the sharp polarization of the globe, fears of looming nuclear apocalypse, and … a government enmeshed in secrecy and conspiratorial activity,” then they are just not paying attention.  What have we been doing for the last 8 years if not polarizing the globe? We are so entrenched in an “us vs. them” narrative that we felt the need to change the name of our fried potato treats.  As the number of states that have nuclear weapons grows we should worry about a nuclear accident now more than ever.  Pakistan, North Korea, and soon Iran are all unstable states that have nuclear capabilities (I just found out that South Africa is one of the 10 nuclear armed states, seemed pretty random).  We went into Iraq under the assumption that Hussein was attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction.  Also, it is not just nuclear annihilation we need to worry about, there are plenty of other ways that humanity can kill itself off (See: environment).  The Bush Administration was incredibly “enmeshed in secrecy.”  Look at all the shady stuff that is coming out: the US attorney firings, torture memos, secret prisons, roving death squads, illegal wiretapping, chupacabras, detaining prisoners illegally, not to mention the sweet, sweet bribes.  The Bush Administration was a paranoid person’s dream (or nightmare, not sure which).  I think it is hard to say that the main ideas behind postmodernism are no longer relevant.

I agree that “globalization” literature is an interesting field, and one that is very relevant to our current society.  However, as Susana pointed out, I feel that it points in a new direction for postcolonial or transnational literature.  And why does it have to be one or the other?  Why does Adams feel that the rise of one type of literature automatically leads to the demise of another? Why can’t we all just get along?

I just want to add that I enjoyed Tropic of Orange very much, my beef is with the article, not the novel.

Cold War and the Net, and 9/11 too.

This is the third of fourth time I’ve read through the Adams article and I’m still really hung up on the open vs. closed system idea. At first, I think I pretty much bought her argument, although cautiously. I was thinking particularly about the flow of information and how in Pynchon’s world it is overwhelming and intrusive – this leads to paranoia and chaos; yet in Yamashita’s world it is “designed less to entrap both character and reader in a postmodern labyrinth than to evoke the dense networking of people and goods in an age of global interconnection.”

The more I considered this idea, the more I began to agree with Adams’ assessment. The concept of, let’s say, the Internet, would have seemed incredibly threatening to someone like Pynchon in the 60s, through the end of the Cold War. Consider the earlier reception of Sputnik – an informational satellite perceived as everything from spy to death-ray – instant and global information-sharing must have been a terrifying prospect to those alive during the Cold War. Flash forward to the 90s, after the Cold War, and in the heyday of the early Internet and society had a completely different attitude towards information-sharing networks. The paranoia was gone and people, for the most part, saw the approaching global interconnectedness as a positive, rather than something to be feared. People sought out information, and instead of information being chaotic and cryptic (Oedipa), it made lives easier (Wikipedia!!!).

My main issue with/question for Adams, originally was concerning the effects of 9/11 on the ‘new’ era of literary postmodernism. I originally figured that it would have been a Cold War redux situation…in that it would have increased paranoia and a fear of global information sharing. However, while paranoia was on the rise immediately following 9/11, I think people actually embraced technology and information sharing EVEN MORE. Sure there was some techno-fear (and considering the amount of fear-mongering…I think we all did pretty well..), mostly of the shoe-bomb/exploding shampoo bottle variety, but consider the boom of the 24hr news networks, the talking heads(not the band), the marketing. And here

We, instead of developing a legitimate fear of spies or technological home-invasion (at least not from the enemy…possibly our wire-tapping govt though), sought out every piece of “news” that we could get our hands and ears on. Information (the open system) was our friend, it was comforting, even when it was scary, to know that we knew as much as we could know. And the Internet was the biggest, most instant-gratificacious (not a word) tool at our disposal. We were not, as Adams says “entrap[ed” in any kind of “labyrinth,” but rather we reveled in our interconnection. So, indeed, it seems that the end of the Cold War WAS a major turning point, not just in literary postmodernism, but in societal understanding/comfort with information-sharing and global networking in general. Not even a trauma like 9/11 could make us turn our back on technology/information.

Sure, even Yamashita illustrates that “California (or the Net for our purposes) is a nodal point where globalization threatens to erupt into environmental and human catastrophe…..But she also hints that, as Adams says “[It can] also [be] where people find themselves creating unlikely coalitions that might work to remedy these problems.”


Freeways, Highways, & Underpasses

As I read Tropic of Orange, I was immediately draw to the highway images.  Thanks to twenty-four hour news stations, I have seen many high-speed chases down 805, 1, or some other highway in LA.   While there are a few chase scenes in the novel–Gabriel and Emi after the woman and child in a taxi; the Jaguar and the bus–this wasn’t what attracted me to the highways . Rather, I was draw to the apparent use of the highway as map in the novel, albeit not one that is easy to trace.   

Yamashita is able to have her characters situate themselves in connection to the roads.  Sig traffic accidents happen, the “NewsNow” van arrives on the scene, cars pile up for miles.  Many homeless men and women, such as Manzanar, are described as living under it or compose music by it.  Goods such as oranges and body parts are transported along its veins.  Each character could be placed on or around the highway, thus creating a map of sorts.  However, I don’t think the map would lead the reader anywhere, but would be constricting in some points and expanding in others.  It was this idea that made me think of the staircase in House of Leaves that continually alters and changes on itself.   The highway, like the staircase, traps and confines characters to enclosed spaces.  Such as when Emi gets caught in traffic on page 58,  “Doing the Joan Didion freeway thang.  You know, slouching around L.A.  Sorry, babe, but it’s hard to feel exhilarated going five miles an hour.”  Other characters are situated and sometimes confined in cars–Buzzworm sets up a semipermanent headquarters in a gold Mercedes (186), Mara Sadat does a live TV broadcast from “the open hood of a rusting Cadillac” which is filled with dirt and to grow herbs and vegetables (191).  At other times, the highway seems to stretch in unusual ways, “Harbor Freeway.  It’s growing.  Stretched this way and that.  In fact, this whole business from Pico-Union on one side to East L.A. this side and South Central over here, its pushing out. Damn if it’s not growing into everything!” (189-190). These images seems to link with Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” essay that we read many weeks ago.  He could bring to the table a discussion of the highway as a public or private space.  (I think a case could be made for its functioning as both.) On page 23, Foucault says, “We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside  a set of relations that delineates sites, which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” Couldn’t these “delineate[d] sites” be transfered to the way we view highways in the novel–a way in which to organize our lives?

Another way to look at the highways could be to see them as another character in the novel.  Adams briefly touches on Yamashita’s humanization of the highway, “The great flow of humanity [runs] below and beyond his feet in every direction, pumping and pulsating, that blood connection, the great heartbeat of a great city” (35).  Adams contrasts Yamashita’s anthropomorphizing of the highway to Pychon’s passive description.  As I was reading Tropic of Orange, I found that not only was the highway given human qualities, but in some cases it served as another character making an appearance in almost every chapter.

Immigration and the Making of a Transnational Hybrid Identity

Even though Yamashita identifies herself as an “Asian-American” writer, her literary work Tropic of Orange defies any specific cultural and geographical associations implied in that categorization. More than any other novel this semester, Tropic of Orange effectively portrays characters that have a truly transnational cultural identity. In one of the more engaging parts of the novel, Arcangel moves the Tropic of Cancer to the north, over the border between Mexico and the United States. This shifting of national boundaries obviously disturbs our understanding of the various political and cultural borders separating continents and countries, but even more interestingly, it challenges our notions of what constitutes a certain cultural identity. As a result of this “shifting geography”—which in reality just represents the shifting of populations—the identities of the characters have become hybrids of all the different cultures to which they have been exposed.

Yamashita is making the point in Tropic of Orange that the United States, whose inhabitants embody the transnational hybrid identity more than any other country in the world, does not offer its population (especially its immigrant population) justice when it comes to the social services that are available to them and how many political and economic choices they have. In the novel, Yamashita repeatedly brings up the issue of immigration. When Bobby recalls Rafaela’s immigration from Mexico, he considers other immigrants who try to cross the border: “Places ‘long the border everybody knows, every woman don’t get raped, she don’t pass. The price she pays. Next up from the women, it’s the poor Indian types. They don’t know the language, don’t know the ropes. It’s gonna be the border rats robbing them. Cross the river. Make a run for it down Zapata Canyon. Lose their money. Their shoes. The clothing off their bodies. Maybe nobody gonna see these folks again. Bunch come floating up the river. It’s a fourteen mile zone…On the other side the migra arrests 1,000 per night…It’s high technology with a revolving door. If you lucky, Border Patrol chases you down. Puts you in a wagon and dumps you back. But maybe you gonna be one of them gets shot” (201-202). When people successfully cross the physical border, they then have to cross other barriers, including melding into the American culture and learning the English language: “ ‘Do you have a green card? Do you have a social security card? Do you have any money? When you get there, you will be unprotected. If you get sick, no one can give you care. If you have children, no one will teach them’…’Is it a crime to be poor? Can it be illegal to be a human being?’ (211).” In “The Ends of America,” Adams rightfully notes that the issues raised in Tropic of Orangemost notably “the human and environmental consequences of transformations taking place at America’s borders”—are easily recognized by students because they are so pertinent to the current contemporary moment.

In an interview, Karen Yamashita explains that while she used the metaphor of land that shifts in Tropic of Orange, it is really the people who have moved: “The geography has changed because humans have created this transition. I suppose it’s fantastic and more radical to talk about the land moving, in terms of the artistic or visual effects of the book. But the real message is that people are moving. And that has changed the landscape entirely, because they’ve taken their culture and their landscape with them.” (By the way, this interview was very useful for me to understand Yamashita’s motivations for writing this novelà I can personally identify with this topic—maybe that’s why it’s so interesting to me. As an Egyptian-American I consider myself a hybrid of both cultures, belonging to both entirely, but not to either at the same time. It’s a very postmodern thought—that most American immigrants cannot identify themselves as belonging to only one culture. Similarly, even people who have not immigrated have a hybrid identity, shaped by transnational cultural movement of Americanization that has spread all over the globe.

Globalization & Transnational Studies in Tropic of Orange

In reading Adams’ explanation of the distinction between postmodern and contemporary literature, I felt the following quotation best aided my understanding of her argument:  “Although Tropic of Orange is similarly complicated in terms of plot and narrative construction [as The Crying of Lot 49], its formal difficulties seem designed less to entrap both character and reader in a postmodern labyrinth than to evoke the dense networking of people and goods in an age of global interconnection. As Yamashita represents it, California is a nodal point where globalization threatens to erupt into environmental and human catastrophe, but also where people find themselves creating unlikely coalitions that might work to remedy these problems.”

If I understand this correctly, Adams suggests that while both books depict an interconnectedness (among people, events, things, and places) that is both complex and ambiguous, Pynchon depicts this interconnectedness as a conspiracy which ensnares both Oedipa and the reader, whereas Yamashita’s book uses interconnectedness to display humanity’s potential to work together to achieve solutions. 

I agree with Sarah that Adams has helped me to understand postmodernism better, but I must also say that it brings to mind a conversation we have been having in my other class this semester, ENG 551: Literary Criticism.  We have discussed a smorgasbord of critical views of literature, and more recently, we have discussed the section in our textbook entitled “Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Transnational Studies.”  I researched the distinctions and connections between these terms for a recent presentation on a Jamaica Kincaid piece called A Small Place (in which Kincaid suggests that the tourism industry in postcolonial tourist destinations like the island of Antigua exists as a sort of secondary colonialism in which the binary between tourist/native creates a tension not unlike that between colonizer/colonized).  Interestingly, Adams references the following statement by Michael Denning:

a central task of a transnational cultural studies is to narrate an account of globalization that speaks not just of an abstract market with buyers and sellers, or even of an abstract commodification with producers and consumers, but of actors: transnational corporations, social movements of students, market women, tenants, radicalized and ethnicized migrants, labor unions, and so on.

Of course, my “ears”/eyes perked up when I read the term “transnational,” and I found myself considering the economic reading of Tropic of Orange as largely important to understanding (anything about) the text.  In my used book, I have notes in the margins from a previous owner that are, by and large, not useful to me except one which reads: “Traded goods, but not people–people do not get in” (scrawled on p. 230 beside the following underlined pasasage in the text: “Cuz is staring at her new Nikes.  Made in China.  Nikes get in.  But not the bro.”)  What hypocrisy!  We will exploit the developing worlds for its goods and its services, but we gawk at the idea of transnational experiences which will allow people in the developing world the same liberties we have in the United States.  Of course, immigration is a very complicated and heated issue, but why isn’t commerce and consumerism more of an issue?

Transnational studies, I have come to understand, considers the effets of the spread of English throughout the colonies of the British empire, as well as what Adams considers the “globalization of American literature.”  We cannot deny that the United States has been equally successful in creating some kind of empire that has spread the culture and language we speak across many parts of the world.  That said, our job as contemporary critics, I am coming to understand, is to not only incorporate varying cultural perspectives, but to purposefully consider the ramifications of a postcolonial world and a world affected by the United States’ hegemonic status.

Yamashita’s contemporary novel Tropic of Orange brings together multiple cultural identities, with particular attention to the minority groups often left out of American literature before postmodernism.  I feel strongly that her choice to incorporate the perspectives of seven main characters over a period of seven days relates directly to the cohesive quality of the number seven: not only are there seven days in the week, but there are also seven continents in the world.  As Adams points out, despite a very organized chart entitled “HyperContexts” at the beginning of the book and “although this map locates the central characters in time and space, [this chart] also provides a deceptive sense of order to a narrative that ultimately refuses to come together in any coherent manner. ”  That, I gather, is part of Yamashita’s message here: there is no coherent, cohesive, or perfect way to mesh together a variety of people and cultures, but it is certainly necessary and reasonable (and even unavoidable) to do so.

Tropic of Orange and Cognitive Mapping

Tropic of Orange was a very accessible read for me, so right away I knew something was wrong. The use of magical realism was charming, but that didn’t seem to jibe with what I thought I knew about postmodernist style. Adams’ article was very helpful to me in defining postmodernism by defining what it is not. She made a good point that the label of postmodernist loses any meaning it had when it is applied so liberally. Part of the reason I think we all feel so confused sometimes about what constitutes postmodern (aside from the fact that no critics can really agree either) is that the adjective is applied to such different-seeming texts. One thing I liked about Adams’ article was that she framed both postmodern fiction and contemporary fiction in more positive terms. Not only did she define postmodernism by what it’s not, she defined it by what it is. The “post” terms for schools of thought are somewhat troubling to me because they seem to define the wave only as a reaction to what came before, not as something in its own right. Of course all trends in intellectual thought are reactions to what came before, so it seems as if postmodernism should be able to come up with a descriptive definition for itself the way that other waves have done, instead of a temporal placeholder of a name. Adams terms postmodern fiction as Cold War literature, and contemporary fiction as the literature of globalization, which seem useful definitions to me.

Although she says it would be premature to label aesthetic and thematic trends in the literature of globalization (Is that a cop-out?), she does identify multivocalism as one stylistic trend in Tropic of Orange. I found myself reminded of House of Leaves’ multivocalism, but when I stopped to think about House of Leaves in terms of her definition of a postmodern text, it did seem to have the requisite “preoccupation with paranoia and conspiracy, radical skepticism about foundational truth and authority of all kinds, deft mixing of genres, distrust of received historical knowledge, and confrontations with the sublime and apocalyptic” (Adams 3). Tropic of Orange does mistrust the government, the army, the police, the newsmedia, but at least there does seem to be room for change. In a world where such acts of magical realism are possible, attitudes and ingrained cultural processes can surely also be extraordinarily transformed. What’s more, I did believe that the characters in Tropic of Orange themselves believed in the possibility of change.

It would be interesting to view Tropic of Orange, The Crying of Lot 49, and Adams’ article in terms of Jameson’s cognitive mapping. He decribed the alienated city as “a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves” wherein cognitive mapping should work to “enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.” It was the beginning map of the character’s voices throughout the novel that reminded me of cognitive mapping, in addition to Adams’ focus on the geographical spaces in the novel. But in Tropic of Orange, at least some of the characters seem to have both psychological and metaphysical maps working and intact. Excluding perhaps Emi and Gabriel, Buzzword, Archangel, and even Bobby (with his barrio surfing) seem to be sure of their literal and figurative place in the world. Buzzword in particular seems to be an activist on behalf of cognitive mapping, wanting people to get outside and walk to connect themselves more intimately to the places they live in. Archangel as well was establishing a place for his people. Manzanar perhaps is with his symphony establishing cognitive maps for those who can hear, integrating the different voices of the city into a coherent living, functioning whole.


I found Adams’ article, “The Ends of America,” really helpful in my (still feeble) attempts to form a working definition of postmodernism. She seems very confident in her definition of what we’ve admitted is a slippery category: postmodernism as the “dominant form of avant-garde literary experimentalism during the Cold War, a period marked by the ascendance of transnational corporations, the upheavals of decolonization, fears of nuclear holocaust, and the partitioning of the globe into ideological spheres” (Adams 2). Here, Adams is referring to the sixties through the late eighties (I would say it coincides with the formation and then fall of the USSR). However, stuff like the “upheavals of decolonization, fear of nuclear holocaust, and the portioning of the globe into ideological spheres” is sounding an awful lot like what’s going on today (I asked someone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis why they thought we don’t seem particularly concerned about the prospect of countries like North Korea or Pakistan getting nuclear weapons, and they said they think it’s because our generation has never had that much faith that the world wasn’t going to end, so there didn’t seem a point to panicking. I think they’re right.).


So anyway. If Adams is arguing that postmodernism was a reaction to the “containment culture of Cold War America,” (Adams 1) it would seem that the postmodern “moment” is over, as the particular historical moment that postmodern was a reaction to is more or less over as well. If so, I’d have to say that postmodernism seems to me to be the quickest-passing literary “moment” I’ve ever studied. (Is it possible that literary eras are speeding up? Why do I have to use so many parentheses?) Anyway, Adams argues that books like Tropic of Orange (and I would say also The Magical Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death-there I go again with the goddamn parentheses) are not postmodern per se but post-postmodern, or, in her terms, a reaction to the globalization of American literature. But do we agree that postmodernism has passed as its historical moment has passed?


But moving on, I thought I’d write a bit about my final paper and the issues I’ve been having and hopefully elicit some opinions and comments from other people. I wanted to take the discussion about Beloved and sort of run with it-I’d have to say it felt like the one book on the list that had the most to quibble about whether or not it was postmodern. But now I’m starting to feel like Oedipa, because it seems that each article or book I read just sends me ping-ponging from one position to the other. I’d like to make the argument that Beloved is a uniquely postmodern book. Here, Adams gives her list of what makes a postmodern work postmodern: “dark humor, themes of paranoia, skepticism, and conspiracy, preoccupation with close reading and textuality, and complex formal experimentation…[postmodern works] can be historicized as a response to and reaction against…the containment culture of Cold War America” (Adams 1). Given that Beloved has nary a nuclear reactor or conspiracy theory in sight, and it takes place in a history as yet untouched by the Cold War, is it still a postmodern novel?


Well, Adams goes on to write of Pynchon as the definitive postmodern author, citing his “preoccupation with paranoia and conspiracy, radical skepticism about foundational truth and authority of all kinds, deft mixing of genres, distrust of received historical knowledge, and confrontations with the sublime and apocalyptic” (Adams 3). Leaving out the paranoia and conspiracy part, I think a case could be made that Morrison’s work exhibits the same characteristics

A Lesson in Postmodern Disorder

In “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism” Rachel Adams writes this of her students’ responses to The Crying of Lot 49 and Tropic of Orange:

Their responses caused me to realize that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pynchon’s novel [The Crying of Lot 49] has ceased to read as a work of contemporary fiction, even though many critics continue to use postmodern and contemporary as synonymous term.  While my students find Tropic of Orange no less challenging, they are willing to grapple with its difficulties because they recognize its form, which evokes the internet’s polyvocality and time-space compression, and its theme–the human and environmental consequences of transformations taking place at America’s borders-as belonging to their own contemporary moment. (2)

Looking at these texts from an undergraduate pedagogical perspective, this seems to be a fairly onerous lesson.  Even if pairing these two texts together produces a distinction within literary postmodernism, it seems more of a salvage mission than one of intellectual curiosity.  If The Crying of Lot 49 (or any text for that matter) only “works” for those experientially familiar with Cold War paranoia, “nuclear apocalypse, and newfound distrust of a government enmeshes in secrecy and conspiratorial activity” (2) then does it really offer a spring board for scholarly discussion (outside of: This text will inform the other texts we will be reading)?  Is it only possible for students to value the text after they have read a “relatable” contemporary text like Tropic of Orange?  Taking it a step further, are we merely teaching The Crying of Lot 49 for contextual/historical reasons?  Is it possible to make it more relevant to students?

Though I do not disagree with Adams pairing of the two texts, I am curious to whether she believes them to be short-term “cultural capital” or appreciating assets on the road to canonization.  Though either point could be argued, for the purposes of this discussion (as well as arguing for its inclusion in this course), I am more interested in the latter.  Though Adam’s experience with her students initially points to the texts as holding short-term “cultural capital,” this need not be the case.  First and foremost, a reader, even a reader as potentially resistant as a student, must have some sort of connection with a text.  Even if it manages to “generate a more precise understanding of literary postmodernism” (10) that lesson will be lost if it is not more than a simple history lesson.  Therefore, to make The Crying of Lot 49 relevant to an undergrad population, one must have an appropriate framework for discussion.  Adams seems to draw a connection between using The Crying of Lot 49 as a point of entry to discussing Tropic of Orange.  “These novels are an ideal pair because each translates the cultural and political dilemmas of its time into the aesthetic and thematic innovations of narrative fiction.  Any attempt to define what makes Yamashita’s moment distinctive will require different forms of literary, historical knowledge, and attention to emergent sensibilities that break from earlier understanding of ‘the contemporary'” (10).  I think she falls short in using the more remote text to inform the more “relatable” one.  Drawing from Robert Scholes, I would stay she demonstrates “the tendency to follow a line of ‘masterpieces’ until the end, [which] no longer serve their purpose.  It is not simply that the line is too narrow, though it is, but that this material does not reach student effectively because they do not know why they know why they need it. . . To put it simply, we much begin where we are, at the end, and start asking how we got here” (115).  Perhaps, it would be wiser to read the “relatable” Tropic of Orange first. Only then is it possible to spark the intellectual curiosity necessary to take The Crying of Lot 49 to task.

Works Cited

Scholes, Robert.  “A Fortunate Fall.”  Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994.  111-119.