Monday, July 2, 2018

Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

There There by Tommy Orange

Published 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf

290 pages, contemporary fiction.

I don't remember where I first heard about this book, but most likely it was in some sort of "This is who else you could be reading instead of that rat bastard Sherman Alexie, because he's not the only Native writer around, for crying out loud" article. Whatever it said was enough to convince me to put it on hold at my local library early enough that I ended up being one of the first people to get my hands on it.

While I was waiting, I happened to hear a review on NPR that served to whet my appetite (and remind my tiny brain of what this book was that I had on hold). As you probably know, I tend to read a lot of YA novels, and while I will defend to the death their right to be considered literature, I still admit that they are usually easier, quicker reads that the kind of adult book that gets reviewed on NPR. So I was a little nervous that this book would be a bit too serious, too "writerly" to keep my attention.

I needn't have worried.

Was it complex? Yep. At one point I had to dig a receipt out of my purse and sketch a schema to clarify how each of the many different POV characters were connected to each other. Luckily, it was one of those obnoxiously long receipts.

Did it employ flowery prose? At times. The "plot" parts of the book hummed right along, but the author includes not only a prologue but several "interlude" sections that are reflective and poetic.

We’ve expected the shooter to appear in our lives in the same way we know death is and always has been coming for us, with its decisive scythe, its permanent cut. We half expect to feel the boom of shots firing nearby. To fall to the ground and cover our heads. To feel like an animal, prey in a pile on the ground….
A bullet is a thing so fast it’s hot and so hot it’s mean and so straight it moves clean through a body, makes a hole, tears, burns, exits, goes on, hungry, or it remains, cools, lodges, poisons. When.a bullet opens you up, blood pours out like out of a mouth too full. A stray bullet, like a stray dog, might up and bite anyone anywhere, just because its teeth were made to bite, made to soft, tear through meat, a bullet is made to eat through as much as it can. (pg. 141, emphasis mine)
That's definitely some virtuoso writing--the sentence I highlighted even plays with rhythm and rhyme--but any showiness is always in service of nailing down an emotion, painting an image, cutting through the bullshit.

Was it worth it? FOR SURE.

I don't read a lot of new releases, and pretty much no ARCs, so I'm not in the habit of wasting your time with plot summaries, but in this case, I feel like it's early enough in the book's life that I can justify it. The book begins with the printing of a 3D gun, which is going to be smuggled into a powwow in Oakland so the prize money can be stolen. (3D printed gun has no metal parts, so it can get in through the metal detector, which, frankly, is a terrifying thought). So you know from the get-go that things are going to end badly.

The story is told from at least a dozen different points of view. Some repeat, others do not. None seem connected at first, then more and more start coming together in expected and unexpected ways. (Hence my map-on-the-receipt.) The characters are (almost) all urban Indians. One character is doing a documentary project in which he asks people to talk to him about what it means to be a Native American living in Oakland. This gives the author a chance to talk about how "urban Indian" isn't really a thing, because "reservation Indian" isn't really a thing. We stuck them there, but they don't belong there.

There's a lot in here about what it means to be Indian, who is or isn't, and the many different forms racism against Indians can take. Orange looks at the tropes--the alcoholism, the politicalization, the fetishism of the "noble brave,"--and he deconstructs them in various ways.

The NPR review I heard focused on the prologue, on Orange's dissertation about the Indian Head throughout US history. I was struck by some other sections, namely the one about the origins of Thanksgiving:

In 1621, colonists invited Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, to a feast after a recent land deal…that meal is why we still eat a meal together in November…that one wasn’t a thanksgiving meal. It was a land-deal meal. Two years later there was another, similar meal meant to symbolize eternal friendship. Two hundred Indians dropped dead that night from an unknown poison. (4)
Some of the characters are deeply likeable. 14 year old Orvil Red Feather and his little brothers, Loother and Lony, are delightfully believable. They've snuck out of the house to attend the Big Oakland Powwow, riding their bikes across town, and Orvil's ready to lock up the bikes.
 Orvil looks back at Loother and asks if he has the lock.
“You always bring it,” Loother says. 
“I asked you to bring it before we left the house. I said, Loother can you get the lock, I don’t want it messing up my regalia. You seriously didn’t bring it? Fuck. What are we gonna do? I asked you right before we left the house, you said, yeah, I got it. Loother, you said, yeah I got it.” 
“I must have been talking about something else,” Loother says. (133) 
Little brothers, am I right?

Their surrogate grandma, the beautifully named Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield ("The good thing was, the kids didn't have to do anything to my name to make fun of me...They just said my whole name and it was funny (46)) is a postal worker who remembers the occupation of Alcatraz. She has seen some shit, and she just keeps doing whatever needs doing next.

Other characters are somewhat less appealing. There is Edwin Black, who, like the author, is a young man with a MFA focused on Native American literature. He is overweight, internet addicted, lives at home with his mom and her boyfriend, and has a uncomfortably specific constipation issue. Not exactly your standard author-insert Mary Sue. There's Harvey, who fathered kids all over the place back in the '70s and now is a loud talking powwow emcee.

I don't want to explain too much else, because the book deserves to be experienced. It's well worth the investment of brain power to enjoy this book.

5/5 stars

1 comment:

  1. Great review! This books sounds weird and awesome. I’ll add it to my TBR list.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!


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