A Collapsing World: On David Yoon’s “City of Orange”
By Jordan S. CarrollSeptember 10, 2022
City of Orange by David Yoon
The novel begins with a man regaining consciousness in a devastated suburban landscape. Because of a head injury, he cannot remember his name, the way he got there, or the reason the world around him lies in charred ruins. He struggles to survive in near solitude while trying to regain memories of his absent wife and child. Although he spends most of the novel imagining that he is living through the aftermath of the apocalypse, he eventually realizes that he is Adam Chung, a widower whose wife and child died in a car crash, and he has been squatting in a stalled housing development left to burn in a wildfire in the wake of the 2007–08 financial crisis.
Adam spends the novel grappling with what Lauren Berlant would call the “crisis ordinary.” The traumatic event of his family’s death is followed by the long slog of unresolved grief that leaves him mired in the details of everyday life. After hitting his head in a suicide attempt, his world contracts down to the immediate urgencies of survival: finding water and food in a narrow perimeter around where he woke up.
Adam tries to make sense of this by reframing his experiences through the genre expectations of the postapocalypse. He emplots the ongoing struggle to take care of oneself — one experienced by many depressives — as a last-man-on-earth scenario in which even the most minor of tasks such as meal preparation becomes a victory achieved only after a cliffhanger. Genre renders his bereft condition bearable because it helps him to know what he is supposed to do and why it matters when all action might otherwise seem pointless.
At the same time, even as Adam seems to triumph momentarily, he remains stuck in an impasse that cannot be resolved with the resourcefulness of a survivalist hero. The novel’s protagonist sometimes thinks of himself as comparable to Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away. Like these shipwrecked figures, he attempts to master the empty landscape by surveying and recording everything about it. Yoon follows in the footsteps of other postmodern and contemporary retellings of Daniel Defoe’s novel, presenting this attempt to acquire power through knowledge as impossible, even foolhardy. Perhaps because Adam is unsaddled by the European settler-colonial baggage of his literary predecessor, he quickly realizes that his measurements are meaningless. Reenacting the Robinsonade does nothing to help him piece together his family life.
Unable to make sense of his environment, he is forced to turn inward. Yoon insists that this novel was written long before the pandemic, during the voluntary hermitage of early parenthood and NaNoWriMo, but it reads very much like a quarantine narrative. As in COVID-era media such as In the Earth, Hellbender, and Tiffany Meuret’s Little Bird, this novel presents self-isolation as a portal into a hallucinatory underworld. Cutting ties with others means unmooring oneself from consensus reality. As his mind starts to unravel, Adam is visited by talking crows and begins to wonder if his entire reality is being manipulated by unseen forces a la The Truman Show.
Through these strange encounters, Adam begins to realize that his wasteland exile is self-imposed. He turns out to be like the missing teacher in Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, another prominent allusion in the novel, who chooses the seclusion that he initially fought to escape. This proves difficult to see because his experience has been colored by a traumatic loss that prompts him to withdraw from others. Although the novel’s title reflects the narrative’s Californian setting, it also comes from a school assignment Adam wrote in which he speculated that if everyone only saw orange, they would not be aware of the other colors they were missing. Our inability to see ultraviolet or infrared leaves us equally oblivious, equally impoverished, he reasoned. City of Orange is a book about how mourning and parenthood can cause the world to fall away, sometimes without our even knowing it. As we lose touch with others, we are not even cognizant of our deprivation.
In some respects, Adam’s shelter in the suburban wilderness provides a refuge for him. Adam runs away not only from a grief he cannot admit to himself but also from the exhaustion of living as a Korean-American with a Black wife and a multiracial child in a society dominated by white racism. Alone, Adam is mostly free from the double consciousness that plagues many of the flashbacks to the Before Times.
Adam also seems to find this secluded place to be a haven from the cruel and trivializing intrusions of social media — even if he sometimes makes up for it by conversing with the voices in his head to fill the silence. When Adam’s family dies, they are captured on camera and turned into a meme that he compulsively watches while home on bereavement leave. Only when he thinks that the internet has unraveled can he stop looking at the video. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to doomscrolling.
Yoon’s novel, which allegorizes familial loss as apocalypse, stands in an uneasy relationship with a long tradition of postapocalyptic family dramas. We might contrast it, for example, with Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. Heinlein’s novel seemed to welcome nuclear war as an opportunity for a strong white patriarch to assert his control over his family after demonstrating his competence to protect them from danger. Because he cares for his family, Heinlein’s Hugh Farnham differs from the lone gunslinger or frontiersman archetype found in many postapocalyptic narratives such as the early Mad Max films, but he shares with them a libertarian ethos of self-reliance and self-defense.
As Melinda Cooper has shown, the family is especially important in neoliberal politics because it provides a punitive and supposedly more cost-effective alternative to the welfare state. Neoliberals want the male breadwinner — not the government — to assist as well as discipline family members in need. Survivalism takes this idea to its logical conclusion: libertarian preppers want to see the state destroyed precisely so that the paramilitary father with his well-stocked fallout shelter can finally take care of his own while asserting dominance over women and children free from outside interference
Yoon rejects this line of thought in his novel. Unlike the ever-capable Farnham and other doomsday heroes, Adam realizes that we can never be prepared for everything, and we must always rely on others. The protagonist comes to terms with the fact that nothing he could have done would have saved his family once disaster struck. Adam also recognizes that, because he is not an island, he cannot make it through his melancholia alone. Ironically, Adam goes to his paranoid survivalist friend Byron to ask for help once he escapes the abandoned neighborhood. Throughout the novel, Yoon makes clear that he finds the image of the survivalist decked out in his expensive gear to be ridiculous because it implies a level of self-sufficiency that no one actually achieves.
At the same time, the novel misses an opportunity to make a more incisive political statement about how these survivalist themes relate to the broader context of the financial crisis. The narrative seems to promise a glimpse into the wider world from the very beginning. It is structured like Hugh Howie’s Wool: the protagonist is confined to a very small area of a ruined environment, and the reader’s anticipatory excitement depends on the feeling that something wholly unexpected could be right over the horizon if only he could reach it. Once we discover that Adam has been living on our timeline in 2010, the novel seems to lose interest in the rest of the world.
Adam does not even know the meaning of the financial term “underwater,” and the narrative does not probe much deeper into the financial crisis than the protagonist’s understanding of it. The novel narrows down to Adam’s personal life when it might have broadened to become a dystopic indictment of global capitalism in the vein of Ling Ma’s Severance. The fact that the book’s title recalls Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange only compounds the reader’s feeling of confinement to the local and the interpersonal. Unlike Yamashita’s sprawling speculative classic about transnational politics, City of Orange provides only brief glimpses of a wider context, as when Adam mourns his loss of connection with his parents’ culture.
The novel’s incuriosity about social conditions is most pronounced when it depicts the unhoused. Adam encounters a man carrying all his possessions in grocery bags tied to his body. When they try to converse, the man can only say the word “berries.” When we think we are in a postapocalyptic novel, the man appears as a parodic Man Friday, the kind of eccentric wasteland wanderer played for laughs that we often see in this subgenre. The man provides a bit of action in the novel — stealing Adam’s stuff and leaving behind an incoherent note — but he stops being funny once we realize he is a real-world figure who is presumably dealing with an untreated mental illness.
Although Adam wishes the man well, the novel does not bother itself much with thinking about why he ended up in his current state. The unhoused man serves mainly as a foil who allows Adam to reflect on his own inability to maintain his relationships with others.
City of Orange is better when it explores the socioeconomic circumstances surrounding Clay, a boy that Adam meets in the derelict housing development. We begin to see the historical factors that led him and his mom to remain in such a desolate place. Adam pulls himself out of seclusion by caring for the odd child who seems to be seriously troubled. This is easily the most fascinating character dynamic in the novel, but when Adam decides that he has no place in Clay’s family, they part ways from each other.
Yoon’s focus on the family parallels another recent postapocalypse: Don’t Look Up. Through montage, Adam McKay’s film succeeds in capturing the planetary scale of the disaster, but in the final moments it collapses down into the domestic sphere with the lead characters all sharing one last meal around the dinner table. Although Don’t Look Up offers much more mordantly funny observations about our current political predicament, this scene seems to share City of Orange’s sentiment that even during a global catastrophe there is nothing more important than keeping our friends and family close.
Of course, not all apocalyptic family dramas arrive at the same sentimental conclusions. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road never ceases to remind us that the father and son’s lives have been radically diminished by the subtraction of the social and ecological world that once sustained them. Melancholia presents heterofamilial intimacy as a constricting or comforting illusion that cannot hold up in the face of an uncaring universe. Many recent apocalyptic narratives, including 28 Days Later, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt explore queer kinship, families of choice, and other intimate arrangements threatened by post-collapse powers seeking to reimpose normative gender roles by force.
As late capitalism continues its protracted decline, taking earth’s ecosystem with it, the postapocalypse will remain an important genre for making sense of our historical conjuncture. If we are to confront these vast problems, we will need more doomsday narratives that offer what Ursula K. Heise calls a “sense of planet,” an appreciation for how local, everyday life is bound up in much larger networks crisscrossing the globe. Our political and narrative horizons cannot remain limited to individuals and their closest loved ones.
Jordan S. Carroll is a visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Puget Sound.
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