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“Relentless Geography”: Los Angeles’ Imagined Cartographies in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange By Cristina M. Rodriguez How many maps, in the descriptive or geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode its meanings and contents? It is doubtful whether a finite number can ever be given in answer to this sort of question. ---Henri Lefebvre (85) Darling of Fredric Jameson, fetish object of postmodern philosophers, and bane of urban planners, Los Angeles as a city defies ordinary description and conventional narrative. Edward Soja, in his turn enchanted by the city, argues that LA confounds historicization, seeming to stretch laterally instead of unfolding sequentially, becoming a limitless, unstopping and unstoppable space (222). Indeed, Los Angeles’ confluence of global capital and inner city decay, of low density urban sprawl and extreme social, economic, racial, and ethnic segregations, is unique among contemporary cities, and perhaps for that reason looms large in both the philosophical and literary imagination. When analyzing a city so contradictory and multivalent, recourse to symbolic language might just be necessary, as even sociologists and theorists often wax poetic when attempting to depict the city’s character.



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What would a map of Los Angeles drawn from the ground up look like? In his groundbreaking work The Production of Space (1974), Henri Lefebvre argues that the conceived space of urban planners is fundamentally distinct from lived space, which cannot be mapped out. In her impressive city-wide narrative, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997) demonstrates the effects of imposing conceived space upon the lived space of inner city Los Angeles residents, and what happens when the counter-model of space being lived by a city’s inhabitants rebels. Yamashita’s text mirrors this disjuncture between represented and lived space through the use of narrative surrealism. Space is magically reconfigured in the city, shrinking the uninhabited Downtown and expanding over-populated yet underrepresented neighborhoods, literally shifting geographically until its mapping matches the social space of those on the ground rather than those who map it from above. Literary criticism on the novel to date has largely interpreted Tropic of Orange as a commentary on the effects of globalization; not enough attention has been paid to the novel’s surreal expansion of Los Angeles’ inner city. Using Lefebvre’s “science of space,” anchored by Los Angeles’ city planning schemas, I argue that Yamashita offers a different map, one perceived by the subsets of LA’s population that fall through the cracks of the city’s grid. Tropic of Orange’s unorthodox formal structure, when combined with its narrative surrealism, creates a differential space in the text, transforming the novel into the Los Angeles imagined by its anonymous users.



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