Tommy Orange's There There
(Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi Books, 2018)
When Margaret Atwood, Marlon James, and Louise Erdrich rave about a book before its release, it had better live up to the hype and Tommy Orange’s debut, There There very much does. Erdrich calls the novel a “comic vision haunted by profound sadness.” Maybe my sense of humor is broken but I don’t see a comic vision here; for me this book is a study in loss and rage and the many ways that the people John Trudell called “the American Indigenous” find to survive in what the rest of us have done to their land, their families, and their culture. Orange’s characters aren’t on “the rez,” as has become the tradition with so much writing about Native people, but instead live in Oakland, California. What does it mean to be both urban and Native in the twenty-first century and how are the lives of these twelve characters different from others surviving in the fringes of an America primarily driven by greed and rife with racism? Both are central questions Orange is trying to answer in his debut novel. There are touchstones here of Native history (the Alcatraz occupation is one) and culture (drums, powwow, dance) but his characters are also very much a part of mainstream American life and its inherent cruelty and violence. The world Orange writes about is a place where young men print 3-D guns and use their video game skills to fly drones to aid in a criminal violation of their own communal space. This is also a place where children find lost parents and everyone suffers from the brutality of poverty, alcoholism, and a world with few options.
Orange has said his goal with There There is to present a multi-generational, multi-voiced novel about Native people living in Oakland. The Urban Native is a figure seldom depicted in fiction—we tend to prefer our fictional Natives on the reservation and full of wisecracks, wisdom, and tragic stories if not historical and mostly extinct. Orange’s characters have tragic narratives in abundance: fetal alcohol syndrome, domestic and sexual violence, parental neglect, and a lack of choice. But there is more here than just tragedy. There is a level of deep and intimate realism that speaks to anyone who has lived on the wrong side of town, gone to the wrong schools, been offered none of the abundance of American life except the desire for more.
The novel is told in short segments with multiple perspectives of twelve characters shown at different crucial moments in each of their lives leading up to a central event: a powwow in Oakland where a terrible violent crime is enacted. These interwoven narratives offer a mix of the traditional and the modern, the conflict between dreams and reality but Orange moves beyond many of the tropes that have become central to the stories we often read about Natives in America. Rather than referencing anything specifically Native, the title of the novel appears in one segment as a reference to a Radiohead song and in another as a quote from Gertrude Stein writing about Oakland.
Orange’s characters are all flawed and more human because of their flaws. The voices of his characters are well wrought but what is most striking is the clean integration of twenty-first century technology and urban culture into the novel. While powwow culture and Native drumming are central, so are social media, cell phones, YouTube, drones, and a deadly 3-D printer. The novel starts out with a prologue that provides a clear and brutal dose of the historic reality of Native people in America but it also does what so few prologues seem to do these days: it sets up the historical foundation for the novel while also presenting the novel’s central themes and recurrent symbolism. If you pay attention in the prologue, you’ll have a hint of what is to come and you’ll be able to see the connective threads that hold these narratives together. And this is part of what makes Orange a superior writer: he’s not just writing stories that need to be told, he’s creating narrative with a razor sharp attention to craft. I read a lot of books—maybe too many—and I am always thrilled when I finally come across a writer who actually knows how to write. Not just someone who can tell a good story, create sexy or interesting characters, maybe give me a sense of place, but someone who pays attention and cares enough to craft every word, every sentence and works to present a beautifully coherent whole. In the prologue’s section “Urbanity,” Orange writes his own definition of the people he is writing about, a definition that is both illuminating and a calling out against racism, colonialism, and all those people who want to define what “Indians” are. White people don’t get to do that. The interconnectedness of Native communities comes out in Orange’s novel and is present in the prologue in microcosm, “An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. Everything here is formed in relation to every other living and nonliving thing from the earth.” You cannot write Orange’s Indians into a traditional box, they “know the downtown Oakland skyline better than…any sacred mountain range…the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers.” Urban Indians “ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains.” For Orange, being “Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” (11)
The novel starts from the point of view of Tony Loneman or “the Drome” as he calls himself. Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Loneman is twenty-one and judged to be of “low” intelligence but he has a deeper perception, enough to know what people mean “when they say they mean another thing.” Loneman is central to the violence in the novel but in the end makes a decision that somewhat redeems him—he is troubled, but he’s smart enough to know the difference between right and wrong. And this is another of Orange’s central themes that appears throughout each of the narratives in the novel—the importance of knowing what is right for oneself and for others. Orange has a talent for writing these basic themes without being heavy-handed. He allows his characters the space to make mistakes, to fail, and to do small or large things that will redeem or destroy.
Unlike so many of his male contemporaries, Orange does an excellent job with his female characters: they have depth, complexity, and are central, integral actors in the larger drama of the novel. He writes and seems to understand the specifically female pain each of his female characters: the shame and rage of rape and unwanted pregnancy, the loss of a child, the pain of watching a child lose himself in violence or drugs. These women are strong but not in an overly stereotypical way—certainly there is the wise but strict grandmother, the drunken but ultimately redeemed absent mother, and the women who refuse to see the evil, the violence their children enact on each other or the world. There are also the complicated former alcoholics, the children of drug addicts, and the mother who lets her post-college graduate son stay home and feed his internet addiction. Other writers could learn a lot from the way Orange writes women.
Orange’s men are also well wrought. They are drug dealers and college graduates, a young man who wins a grant to collect people’s stories as a sort of memorial to his dead uncle, another young man who finally gets a job because it means he can be closer to a father he’s never met. And men with few options who are desperate for more: more money, more love, more of whatever it is they think will give them some peace. Ultimately it is the obsession with money, with the lack and desire for it that culminates in the central violent moment of the novel: a robbery gone horribly wrong. In an era when mass shootings have become an almost daily occurrence there is still something shocking about the idea of young Native men shooting their own people. Mass shootings are something white people do. And of course, this is a part of Orange’s point: Urban Indians belong to the city and are as prone to the gun sickness of white culture as any unwanted white high school boy. The bullets present in his prologue reappear later in the novel wielded by Native men instead of whites but bullets all the same, “The bullets moved on after moving through us, became the promise of what was to come, the speed and the killing, the hard, fast lines of borders and buildings…Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” This is a truly harrowing, powerful read and a wonderfully sculpted novel.