There There

One of the characters in Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is a filmmaker named Dene Ozendene who is taking over a project started by his uncle Lucas before his death. In an interview for a grant, he describes the work this way:

What he did, what I want to do, is to document Indian stories in Oakland. I want to put a camera in front of them, video, audio, I’ll transcribe it while they talk if they want, let them write, every kind of story I can collect, let them tell their stories with no one else there, with no direction or manipulation or agenda. I want them to be able to say they they want. Let the content direct the vision. There are so many stories here.

This book feels a little like that project in novel form. It’s the story of urban Indians in Oakland. Each chapter follows a different character, with Oakland seeming, for much of the book, to be their only commonality. They come from different tribes, if they are enrolled in a tribe at all. They are from different generations and have different experiences, although many have experienced some sort of trauma — a lost parent or a lost child or addiction or homelessness. These aren’t necessarily their own stories as they would tell them. Some chapters are in first person, but most are in third. (And they have a similar tone, which makes it sometimes hard to keep characters straight as the story expands.) But the book has that feeling that Dene describes, of being every kind of story, simply told with no clear agenda.

As the book goes on, all the stories converge on a single event, the Big Oakland Powwow. Some characters are helping organize the event. One of my favorite characters, Orvil Red Feather, is preparing to dance at the powwow for the first time, having taught himself secretly by watching YouTube videos, as his adopted grandmother (really, his great aunt) has been too busy working to keep the family fed to connect him with Indian traditions. I would have read a whole book about Orvil and his family.

This is a good book, well-written and engaging throughout. For me, there were a few too many characters. There’s a whole plot involving a robbery that could have been simplified. As it was, I didn’t care enough about the characters in that plot to feel invested in its outcome, aside from how it touched other characters that I did care about. And I did care about most of the characters. I appreciated the way Orange had certain themes echo across lives, while giving each character their own story.

I think it’s likely to do well in the Tournament of Books and even has a good shot at the rooster — better than my own favorites, which have qualities that are likely to irritate some readers. That’s not the case here. This is a solid and interesting read, especially for a first-time author.

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8 Responses to There There

  1. Like you, Teresa, I wanted to love this more than I did. Somewhat like Carolyn Chute did so many years ago with The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Orange is taking us into uncharted waters that he knows well, and showing us a side of contemporary America that exists very near the urban white upper-middle class bubbles in which some of us (and many of us who buy and read hardcover literary fiction) live. So in that regard I think he is an important new writer we should watch out for.

    That said, I agree that his stories were too diffuse, and the loose organization, the event at which most characters converge, seemed too much like The Bridge of San Luis Rey. And because of the structure, some of the stories (too many) felt more like sketches than short stories with a climax or epiphany. And if we are supposed to judge it as a novel, it falls even shorter. Fewer stories with protagonists that we could have gotten closer to would have raised the stakes on the climax and made me care more; as things were, by the time I got to the end I forgot who some of the characters were. Like you, I wanted particularly to know more about Orvil Red Feather’s situation, his family, his heritage, and how he felt.

  2. Amy says:

    I totally agree that there were too many characters. But I thought it was a really ambitious outing for a first-time author, and I’m also delighted to learn of new Native writers. Just imagine how much better his second book might be from the experience of writing this first one.

  3. I feel the same way about the plethora of characters. I had to keep referring back to the beginning and trying to figure out, now who is this? But as an emotional piece of art, this worked for me. I was invested in most of the characters and was really moved by the ending. I look forward to reading his next work.

  4. Oh man! This is all very good to know. I love books that converge on a single big event at the end, but novels in stories are extremely not my thing. Maybe I can wait for this author’s second novel? And maybe it will be a bit more my thing and also not have a daunting number of characters?

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know that I would exactly call it a novel in stories. It doubles back to certain characters, rather than just telling one story and leaving that character. It’s just that for at least half of the book, the connections between characters aren’t clear. But there’s no escaping the large number of characters.

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