Title: There There
Author: Tommy Orange
Published: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
This is Tommy Orange’s debut novel and what a debut it is. What we have here is a fictional account of the lives of different Native Americans (mainly) living in Oakland, California. The Prologue makes reference to the historical struggles of Native American people and how they adapted to the urban environment. Thus, initially one might expect a historical piece of fiction. But this is not the case: this is a 21st-century narrative of the lives of 12 different individuals in a contemporary city — in fact, it is so contemporary that it even includes the 3D printing of guns, flying drones and VR headsets.
The book has received rave reviews so far and it is not hard to see why. Orange’s use of language to convey the voice of these 12 characters is realistic and spot-on. Each chapter is named after the character it involves. Some of these stories are told in third person narration, others in first, with the odd occasion of a second-person narrator. We also witness the clever introduction of a Prologue in the form of an essay and a factual chapter on the nature of powwows.
The stories often intersect themselves and gradually we are aware of the complex web of relationships among the characters. The structure is clear, the book divided into four parts, with the last part leading to a cinematic climax for which the reader has, nonetheless, been prepared. Thus, the final chapters become much shorter, effectively enhancing the sense of suspense and drama.
While most readers will be drawn to these dramatic elements in the novel, for me the most introvert, soft passages are the hidden gems in this otherwise energetic work of fiction. The parts where the most ordinary routine tasks are described have an element of stillness, not motionless stillness, but a stillness caught in the perpetual perspective of time (and which is vividly demonstrated in people like Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, Jacquie Red Feather and Edwin Black — to pick just a few of the magnificent array of the characters portrayed).
We learn that the title of the book “There, There” is a quote by Gertrude Stein: “There is no there there,” is what Stein said after returning to Oakland, the city of her childhood, and this could perhaps be interpreted as a reference to the elusiveness of the territory and of the identities involved.
As a debut, it’s impressive. It is a rare occasion to have a novel about Native Americans in a contemporary context. It is a subtle commentary on how historical identities adapt to urban settings, virtuosically executed and narrated.