Book Review: There There

Well, I guess I liked it. As is often the case, I am torn after reading There, There by Tommy Orange. As is not often the case, I am of two minds myself. For a moment, I am in the camp with the Hemingway/PEN committee and the New York Times and all those many fans. And then a second later I’ve run over to the other camp, where the naysayers dwell. The thing is, I agree with everybody on this one, all at once. I am a There There waffler.

Cover image from Amazon.com

Yes, Tommy Orange can write beautifully. His prose is good, and his insight is exceptional. He can take you there, though his writing is not picaresque or especially immersive: it’s clean and cutting and is about showing us the character. I love the style of weaving together a number of protagonists (as it is also my favorite way to write) and also stringing along a lot of small things to culminate in a big bang at the end. There are scenes that will stick with me over time, searing moments, and of course he has something to say about the topic he carefully chose: modern, urban Native Americans. I am interested in hearing about this topic, curious and concerned.

The thing is, I also felt like this book wasn’t as great as many people made it out to be. It was disjointed at times, as well as lopsided. The first chapter was really well-written and poignant, but it didn’t really belong in the book: it was a separate essay. There There also feels a little too self-aware at times. Tommy Orange is basically Dene Oxendene (at least without me knowing anything about him) and I feel like the curtain’s been pulled aside in Oz with this character. It was unnecessary to spell things out so much. Also, I’m not a fan of reading about the criminal element, though this was done in a way that I could just about tolerate it. It was necessary, too. And even though there is the big kaboom at the end, there are some danglers and I’m sure I’m not the only person who was like “Wait! Did that guy die or not?!”

There There is not at heart a read-to-escape kind of book, even though it does have the set-up of a traditional, weaving plot and climax. It is not especially long and goes down pretty easy. There is a character list at the beginning, which is necessary to keep track of all the main characters. I wish there had been a family tree too, but maybe not, because that would have spoiled some of the surprises. Speaking of which, I loved all the little twists and turns and surprises, but at the same time I was very aware of them, like a guilty pleasure. Maybe they were a little cheesy? I guess cheesy isn’t the worst. The novel is about several characters in Oakland, California. They all have at least some Native blood or family ties and though they come from different places they also all have things in common in their experience. They’re all headed to the Oakland pow wow, as well, some with stars in their eyes, some for work, some reluctantly, some on accident, and some with malcontent.

I can’t help but think about The Night of One Hundred Thieves. On the surface, my second novel is nothing like There There because Hundred Thieves is a fantasy novella set in medieval times. However, it is remarkably the same. The ring is the prize money. The burial is the pow wow. There are thirty main characters with a character list at the beginning, all weaving toward the robbery at the end. Follows the good guys and bad guys and gives them all some backstory. It left some dangling threads but also tied up a few afterwards. So it was a little weird reading it, that way. It was like a book I had already written, and yet completely different.

I would recommend There There for two main reasons: the content and the talent. You just don’t come across a dearth of Native art on your average bookshelf, and this story is going the extra mile by telling us the story of modern, urban Natives. Also, there is no doubt that Tommy Orange is an author to watch. His writing is great; in doubt is exactly how wonderful it is. At any rate, it’s somewhere up there and this is not a difficult book to read (unless you don’t want to think about difficult things or watch people struggle). It’s only like 250 pages and with just a dozen flips to the character list, you’ll be through it in no time.

PS. I read this book as a suggestion for Thanksgiving reading. I would say that the first chapter–the one that reads like an essay–would make interesting Thanksgiving reading, but the rest is a stretch. I get it: it’s about Native Americans, so you can leave it in that category if you like. But I’m more content to just leave it in the general reading space, except for that first chapter.

QUOTES:

“They tore unborn babies out of bellies, took what we intended to be…” (p8).

“…you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, only keep it at bay…” (p9).

“The quiet of the reservation, the side-of-the-highway towns, rural communities, that kind of silence just makes the sound of your brain on fire that much more pronounced” (p9).

“Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now” (p10).

“Everything is new and doomed” (p11).

“Money didn’t never do shit to no one. That’s people” (p20).

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died just to get a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen” (p119).

“Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say, ‘Get over it’” (p137).

“…and it turns out that who you spend time with ends up mattering more than what you do with that time” (p175).

“Crying because they wanted him gone. Crying because they wanted him back the way he used to be” (p176).

“You could see it in her eyes—DeLonna without DeLonna behind them” (p223).

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