There There by Tommy Orange
Knopf, 2018; 294 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
A few issues back in this same publication I reviewed Future Home of the Living God, a novel by Louise Erdrich that sat on a modern edge of Native American culture if Native American culture met Silicon Valley in all of its tech wonder and tech damnation. With the much-acclaimed novel by Tommy Orange entitled There There, we have a shift; Native American culture moves to the less-affluent and yet still incredibly innovative in its own right East Bay. Much of the book is set in downtown Oakland, with mild forays out to the Midwest, Arizona, and Alcatraz. Orange wants the reader to be steeped early; the title could be in reference to a song by Radiohead, or to an oft-misinterpreted essay by Gertrude Stein (Stein’s abbreviated out of context quote about Oakland with “no there there”). Orange’s characters exchange charge of point of view, chapter by chapter, and while some of them win the argument some of them don’t know what on earth the argument is. Legacies are questioned (how much Native American is a qualifier for Native American?), relatives are questioned (both in whether or not they are legitimate relations and in their motivation for claiming relation), and decisions are questioned, both in self-contemplation and in judgment of others.
Since so much of Native American culture is who one belongs to (is one Cherokee? Navaho?) Orange has a dilemma on his hands in trying to establish ancestry in an urban environment of catch-as-catch-can ancestry. Characters move from carrying down oral traditions of Dad and/or Mom to inventing stories. Orange takes pure rumor of the nature of fiction and the mysticism the culture and builds a world that we as readers have to believe in hope, in support of this “family” who take turns in tale. Once we believe, once the hope grips us, then Orange stops the story and sings us an interlude and relies on the foundation he fashioned:
This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you are on the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out to sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts. . . . (t)hen someone from up on the yacht . . . says something like, “But your father bought you this yacht, and these are his servants that brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of thugs who’d been hired . . .
(W)hile the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made . . . and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law . . .
If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. Look no further than your last name. Follow it back and you might find your line paved with gold, or beset with traps.
Orange is suddenly charging admission: You want in? At what price do you have the right? If the reader wants to continue with the story beyond the interlude, there is admission to be made, too. Look no further than your last name. Orange is insisting the reader more than likely has their own heritage to consider before hungrily gobbling the heritage that belongs to his characters. Their story, Orange insists, better be savored, and not consumed at the expense of pure curiosity on what a modern-day pow-wow looks like, or witnessing the making of Oakland Coliseum Indian tacos. There There is all there, despite pure fabrication in fiction, and Orange wants to avoid just handing out the truth like another tray of hors d’oeuvres.