I had so much I wanted to write before this month got derailed.
Earlier today I went for a walk around the intersection where Buzzworm’s story ends, at his grandma’s house. It’s only a few blocks from my own home. Nearby is a public library, one of the city’s oldest, nearly a hundred years at its current location. When I started volunteering in the library system, there was an elderly black man at this branch who took it on himself to mentor me, both as a fellow volunteer and as a member of the community. He was born and raised here, and his fear about the wave of gentrification that was just beginning to crash against the neighborhood had less to do with its superficial consequences — the coffee shops, the ugly but upscale housing… the more damaging aspects of gentrification are largely invisible anyway — and more to do with a respect for the people who were already here, and for their history. It doesn’t take long for people to be erased.
We’d volunteered together for years; he knew the history of the neighborhood and especially of the library, who to talk to to get things done, who not to talk to… Then COVID hit and shut down the library system’s volunteer corps, and we lost touch. A year later, when the library started putting together video-conference meetings for its branch volunteers to start coordinating again, I learned that he’d passed away unexpectedly in December. This hit me harder even than my recently passed family members, because even today, when I walked by the library, his absence, which itself feels like a presence, seems in danger of falling into that same forgottenness that concerned him so much. Meanwhile the library is installing a plaque with his name on it.
This may be too autumnal a mood for such a chaotic, if not even cartoonish book, but I keep coming back to Buzzworm, sitting on his mother’s porch and feeling like a man out of time. Something has irrevocably changed in his world, but his befuddlement is a lonely one, because it seems that transformed world has soldiered on as if it hadn’t transformed at all, as if the rare few who’ve recognized what’s changed are no longer plugged in to its vital stream and have to stand by and watch, helplessly and uncomprehendingly. It turns you can’t stuff all those airbags back into their cars.
I wanted to do so much more of an analysis here, but I’ll just list off things I really liked about this book:
- The Rabelaisian reimagining of La-La-Land on the 405. This is where I think Yamashita’s satirical jabs hit the hardest, taking all the stereotypes and tropes of the West side and (paging Dr. Bakhtin) creating a carnivalesque inversion where the homeless and the outcasts and the people that La-La-Land would prefer to forget are now occupying the world’s largest parking lot and embodying (not even imitating, just flat-out embodying) those same stereotypes and tropes. The brutal culmination of this thread, however, shows that satire’s no match for a far more grotesque reality.
- The creepy, almost Repo Man-esque motif of Passion, the increasingly abstract and generic product that fully replaces the humble orange during the panic. I love how Yamashita links the banal to the paranoid via the language of cheery corporate blandness: we go from not having a product called Passion at all to a terrifying ubiquity, all in the course of a week. (“Drink Passion. That’s it.”) Related: one of my biggest laughs, in Chapter 48: “Congress woman Waters saying we gotta get to the bottom of this orange conspiracy.”
- The way that space itself warps and wends as the Orange approaches the city. I like this both because of the uncanny disorientation it creates — I think that element is crucial to the more surreal threads running through the book — but also because it serves as a kind of parody of Hollywood’s version of the city. If you’re familiar with Los Angeles at all, you’re probably very familiar with how loosely films play with the city’s geography, say, having someone drive through Downtown and arrive on the beach, as if these weren’t an hour apart most days. Yamashita takes this sense of unreal space and cranks it up to 11, and by the time the Orange arrives at its point of destiny dragging the Tropic northward, all these spaces, normally hours apart, are piled on top of each other into a cacophonous unreality.
- The recurring motif of city-as-map. I think Yamashita really gets to something profound about what happens when you try (and fail, because you have to fail) at grasping the different map-layers of the city simultaneously. It’s like those anatomy books that stack the different biological systems atop each other on clear overlay pages, where you can flip back and forth to see how all these systems interact — except the city is so enormous, and the maps so misleading (who makes the maps, and what are they trying to express?) that the end effect, the opposite of what one expects from a map, is one of dizzy disorientation.
- And she does this with time, too. One of my favorite sections of the book is the opening of Chapter 35, where every pastime event that could happen in Los Angeles appears to be happening at the same time, creating not only a perverse symphony of “leisure,” but also setting up another “L.A. disaster”: having all these thousands of simultaneous events ending at the same time, clogging the freeways and streets and trains. Fucking lol.
- I’d take the map point a step further and say that Yamashita takes the map-palimpsest motif as an aesthetic project, as well: the book’s various layers of genre and style — satire, melodrama, noir, fantasy, whatever — don’t so much “blend” as “overlay”, and it may be that the sense of exhaustion and confusion at the end is precisely because all these elements crash together but refuse to reconcile.
- Finally, though Yamashita can be a bit inconsistent as a prose stylist, she knocks out some real gems. Whether discussing daytime talk shows (“Ratings were up. Caress sold a lot of Caress.”), our cruelty-based immigration system (“They held the border to his throat like a great knife.”), the city’s pathological disregard for its disenfranchised (“All these people living in their cars. The cars living in garages. The garages living inside guarded walls. You dump the people outta the cars, and you left with things living inside things.”), or the many passages describing Manzanar’s urban symphony, Yamashita shows off some serious range and chops. Here’s a favorite passage, in some ways the core of Yamashita’s concern with complex systems and our apprehension of them:
[Bobby’s] staring at the tube trying to think. Tube’s got Korean channel speaking something. Maybe it’s Russian. Some’s Swahili. Spanish channel’s speaking English with an accent. Everybody in the Mexican soup’s speaking the Queen’s English. Other hand, network’s speaking fluent Castilian. Some’s even in Mandarin. he understands it. He’s thinking too it’s not a mistake; it all makes sense. But! Does Connie Chung even speak Mandarin? Does that Trek character Chekhov speak Russian? Or George Takei, does he speak Japanese? Does Anthony Quinn speak Greek, Turkish, or Spanish? Does David Carradine speak anything but slow English? Who’s gonna understand all this all the time? This some joke?
This some joke? Forget it, Jake. It’s Los Angeles.
Would love to hear what y’all thought of the book, as well.
And stay tuned for next month’s selection, Caitlin Kiernan’s The Red Tree, brought to us by ZoeZ.