The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism
Adams, Rachel, Twentieth Century Literature
If Los Angeles is the city that taught us how to be postmodern, might it also be the place where we begin to imagine what comes after? For well over 30 years, the architecture, demographics, lifestyles, and industries of Southern California have inspired countless essays and books on the nature and significance of postmodernity. Hollywood, Disneyland, the elevators at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, the futuristic cityscapes of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, freeways, suburbs, shopping malls: these have become touchstones for some of the most influential reflections on the subject of American--and often global--postmodernism. (1) Thomas Pynchon wrote of the alienating, dystopian elements of postmodern California in his 1966 The Crying of Lot 49, where he described the road as a "hypodermic needle, inserted somewhere ahead into the vein of the freeway, a vein nourishing the mainliner L.A., keeping it happy, coherent, protected from pain, or whatever passes, with a city, for pain" (15). In the paranoid imaginings of his protagonist Oedipa Maas, traffic is an endless automated flow; the freeway exists less to facilitate human movement than to feed a city that craves only numbing, drug-induced happiness. Oedipa is little more than a pawn in a system too vast to be fully perceived or understood. Fast forward 30 years to Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita, where the Los Angeles freeways are described by Manzanar, a man who gave up his home and his career as a surgeon to become a "conductor" of the vast symphony of urban life. As he stands on an overpass, "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). Like Pynchon, Yamashita uses metaphors of a living body to depict the freeway, but in this case its rhythms are those of human motion; traffic is not a narcotic artificially introduced into the system but the very lifeblood of the city, whose roads are "a great root system, an organic living entity" (37). These contrasting images are emblematic of fundamental differences between The Crying of Lot 49 and Tropic of Orange, a novel that locates seismic shifts on the cultural horizon in the neighborhoods, traffic jams, and volatile borders of Southern California. Separated by 30 years, the two works can be read together as bookends bracketing one possible beginning and end to a particular kind of US literary postmodernism.
This essay proposes that Tropic of Orange represents an afterword to literary postmodernism that I will call the globalization of American literature. My observations originate from a growing sense that canonical works of postmodern literature no longer belong on the syllabus of my annual course on contemporary American fiction, which used to begin with The Crying of Lot 49. My students often respond to Pynchon's novel as if they were victims of a cruel hoax. They have little appreciation for its darkly comic ambiguities and are unfamiliar with historical and political allusions that once would have been immediately recognizable to its readers. Its depiction of the sharp polarization of the globe, fears of looming nuclear apocalypse, and newfound distrust of a government enmeshed in secrecy and conspiratorial activity represent the concerns of an earlier generation. They fail to see what is innovative about Pynchon's flat characters or the medium cool tones and playful self-reflexivity of his language. Their responses caused me to realize that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pynchon's novel has ceased to read as a work of contemporary fiction, even though many critics continue to use postmodern and contemporary as synonymous terms. 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 themes--the human and environmental consequences of transformations taking place at America's borders--as belonging to their own contemporary moment. …