Tuesday, August 21, 2018

There There by Tommy Orange: A review

The title comes from Gertrude Stein's famous assessment of Oakland, her home town: "There is no there there." As one of the characters in this book discovers the statement was not really a putdown of the city; it was simply her way of stating that the place where she had grown up didn't really exist any more. Everything had changed, as, in fact, everything does over time. But in Tommy Orange's telling there is plenty of "there there" in Oakland.

It's the town where Orange grew up as well and where there is apparently a thriving community of Native Americans. They are "Urban Indians" in Orange's (who is himself an enrolled member of the Cherokee and Arapaho tribes) characterization. In his prologue he says, "We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread."

That same searing prologue gives a catalog of atrocities committed against Natives since the coming of Europeans to the continent. It makes for very tough reading but it gives context to the present day people and to the psychological and pathological effects of centuries of abuse and degradation.

Orange describes his "urban Indians" as "present tense" people. It is sometimes difficult for them to see themselves as connected to their history. As one character says, "I feel bad sometimes even saying I'm Native. Mostly I just feel I'm from Oakland."

Orange writes about a dozen Natives who live in or are connected to the city and who are moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow to be held at the Oakland Coliseum. He uses the multiple perspective, telling the story as seen and experienced by each of his characters. The chapters are short vignettes from each character.

At first, I had a difficult time with the story in that I could not see how all these different people and their experiences were connected except by the city. I decided to read some reviews to perhaps find guidance. Luckily, I found a review by Colm Toibin in The New York Times Book Review and in that review, I found this paragraph:
"Within the cacophony of voices in this book and the many short chapters each told from the perspective of one of the characters, the structure is not only dictated by the sense of identity these characters share, but by the fact that many of them will meet at a great powwow to be held in Oakland. Thus they are all, as in Chaucer, pilgrims on their way to a shrine, or as in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, an extended family crossing the landscape." (My emphasis.)
And with that, the figurative lightbulb lit up over my head. Having only recently reread As I Lay Dying, I could easily see these people as the Bundren family writ large. After that I didn't worry about establishing relationships; I knew everything would link up eventually.

And so we follow each character as he or she looks toward the powwow and prepares to participate or to attend as an observer. One woman looks forward to seeing her three grandsons who she had given up to her sister because she realized her addiction made her unable to properly care for them. A man is hoping to meet his father whom he has never seen. A woman who was adopted by white people may meet both her parents whom she does not know. A young man who learned to dance by watching YouTube videos plans to dance at the powwow and hopefully win a prize. And then there are the criminals who are hoping to rob the powwow. They will all come together in a dazzling denouement and none of their lives, if they survive, will ever be the same. All of these lives are touched in some way by alcoholism or addiction and by the lack of a father.

I don't know how to even begin to do justice to this book. It is subtle and complex and powerful, just as are the lives of the people it describes. Even when he is relating the most mundane events, the writer gives the narrative a timelessness and feeling of authenticity that one only finds in great literature. This is an amazing book and I hope it will be widely read. 

The most amazing thing of all about the book may be that this is Tommy Orange's first.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. Great review Dorothy. I have read some quite snarky and negative reviews that put me off reading a book I was naturally drawn to. Apparently those reviewers didn't get it. I am glad you did and I am putting this back on my list.

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    1. I've seen some negative reviews as well, but the best review I've seen is Colm Toibin's whom I referenced. He definitely got it and he helped me to get it. The book may take a bit of work to get into it at the beginning but it is definitely worth it. Enjoy!

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  2. This book has been named by Amazon's editors as among the ten best books of the year thus far. It seems that you agree it is a powerful story.

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    1. It's certainly one of the ten best that I have read this year.

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