Headline: Confused, disjointed, and pointless (but at times beautiful)
Tommy Orange’s novel, There There (derived from a quote by Gertrude Stein that there “is no there there” in Oakland) features many characters. One is Dene Oxendene, an aspiring Native American filmmaker working on a project in which he asks urban Natives in Oakland to sit in front of his camera and tell their stories – stories about how hard their lives have been. The putative film has no particular structure, plot, or end-goal – he’s going to let the stories speak for themselves and allow the subjects to dictate the plot. This novel is very much the same; it’s a series of vignettes depicting the lives and travails of a cast of seemingly random Native Americans living in Oakland, with no obvious plot, theme, or purpose (until the very end). There is some beautiful writing here, and some interesting and deeply troubled characters, but in the end it is a difficult book to read, hard to follow, and lacking in coherence and ultimately in any point aside from documenting how hard it is to be a Native in Oakland.
The author begins with a series of notes about the historically terrible treatment Native Americans received from the White man. Massacres, disease, relocation, oppression, and broken promises. The Natives have received a raw deal. Not a particularly engaging beginning for the non-Native reader. Then, Mr. Orange introduces us to Tony Loneman, a young Native man living with the mental and physical after effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrom (the “drome” he calls it) because his mother was a drunk. After spending the opening chapter getting to know (a little bit) Tony, the author moves on to a different character and it turns out that Tony has very little to do with the story and we seldom see him again. The point of the first chapter is never apparent, and Tony’s “drome” is never again mentioned. This is indicative of the confusion and lack of coherence in this book.
If you are stubborn about wanting to read the whole novel, my advice is that you start off with a pad and pencil so that you can make notes about the names of the characters and you can make a timeline and draw a relationship chart that will enable you to try to keep straight who’s related to whom and where you heard about the characters during the earlier (unnumbered) chapters. You’ll need to cross out or erase some information as you go along, but it’s your only hope of making sense of how the individual stories (chapters) relate to each other. The first section of the book (Remain) consists of four short peeks into the lives of four characters (and their friends and family), none of which seem to have any relationship to any of the others. The only common thread is that they are all Natives, they all live in Oakland, and there is an upcoming powwow gathering of Natives in which they all are interested. The second section (Reclaim) introduces four new characters whose stories are similarly not connected to the first four, then the author gives us a second look at the first four, making a total of eight “main” players that the reader must try to track. Part three (Return) has four new characters acting as the main voice/perspective of a chapter, although all of them were at least mentioned peripherally in earlier chapters.
As you push through the later sections of the book (and at times it is a slog), the author eventually doles out bits of information that start to become individual threads of a spider’s web of connections and junctions that link the characters together. The author does not make it easy. Some of the chapters depict events from the distant past, but the reader has to figure that out – and sometimes it’s not obvious until many chapters later. Several chapters are out of linear sequence, covering ground already tread by other characters in earlier chapters, but again the author does not make that obvious, so the reader has to put the jigsaw puzzle together. The interrelationships between the characters becomes so complicated that without an organizational chart, it’s frustratingly difficult to decipher.
Along the way there are multiple images that I guess are intended to be metaphors. These are mostly disconnected episodes that have no significance to the ultimate story line, and often include the introduction and discarding of characters who play no important role. Some of these portions of the book have delightful imagery and carefully crafted prose, making it more like an epic poem than a novel. Some of the gritty dialogue is also well-written and engaging on a scene-by-scene basis. But, ultimately the individual scenes don’t make a compelling story. (I still don’t understand the references to the spider’s legs that two characters pull out from diseased boils on their legs. The author must think the spider’s legs have a metaphorical meaning, but it’s beyond me.)
There is no book blurb or synopsis on the book’s amazon sale page, which is strange. What you see are glowing reviews from The New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. The potential reader gets no information about the book from the author. So, if you’re waiting for an inspiring tale about Native Americans overcoming their difficult environment, you will be very disappointed. In fact, the book reinforces a lot of negative stereotypes about Natives – lots of alcohol and drug abuse, crime, promiscuity, lack of family cohesiveness, and general despair, even while some people are trying to honor and keep alive the tribal traditions that are the core of the Native identity. But, the reality is bleak, as is most of the story.
The writing style and quality, like the plot, is all over the map. Some chapters are in first person present (usually a bad idea, and here no exception), some in third person past, and even one chapter in second person present tense (unique for sure, but distraction). The editing is quite good, and at times the prose is lovely and elegantly descriptive. If there were a better plot and a more coherent story, these sections would read like Hemingway. But, as written, the beautiful words serve only to emphasize the absence of a story.
In the end (without spoiling), the characters all end up at the big Oakland powwow, where there is a climactic scene, told in very short chapters from the various perspectives of the many characters. This portion of the story is exciting and engaging (with one huge bungle – see below in the spoiler section), but even that leaves the reader in the end without a sense of the purpose of the story or even closure about the outcome. Perhaps that was the author’s point—that there is no closure and no purpose and we are all just feathers floating on the winds of fate. If that’s the point, then this is a very difficult road to put the reader through in order to get there. By the end, I was sorry I started the journey.
This is a commendable attempt at a first novel that is no doubt semi-autobiographical. I read it as a book club selection with no prior knowledge or preconceptions. In that light, it’s an interesting read of a deeply flawed novel and I’d give the author encouragement for his next effort, which hopefully will be better structured and more coherent. But, if you go into this read with high expectations based on the glowing reviews and accolades, you are likely to be very disappointed and frustrated.
— — – – SPOILER SECTION — SPOILER SECTION — READ ONLY IF YOU DON’T CARE —-
I can’t finish this review without pointing out that the author makes a huge blunder by staking a significant amount of the story’s foundation on the premise that the gang of thugs who are planning to rob the powwow are going to accomplish the task using plastic 3-D printed guns, which they will be able to get through the metal detectors at the Oakland Coliseum. The subsequent shoot-out during the powwow is the climax of the book, when four plastic-gun-toting bad guys fire off several dozen rounds that hit various targets, intentionally and unintentionally. The author could have come up with a plausible story line in which the bad guys get real guns into the venue. (They had a drone that flew into the scene a few times, and which could have carried in guns and left them in some out of the way place, for example.) But, the author insisted on using the plot device of the plastic guns. But the author apparently never did any research into 3-D printed guns, because the shoot-out scene could not happen in reality with plastic guns. Real 3-D printed plastic guns: (a) cannot be produced on any printer that an unemployed twenty-year-old Native could possibly have in his basement; (b) cannot fire multiple rounds without manual reloading; (c) typically fall apart after one firing – particularly if they are of low-grade manufacture; (d) are notoriously inaccurate, except at point-blank range; and (e) have very limited range of fire, making it impossible for someone fifty yards away to be killed by a stray shot. The inaccurate depiction of this gang firing off multiple rounds in quick succession from their plastic guns makes the whole final scene cartoonish rather than horrific.
And since we’re into spoiler territory, the ending here is so very unsatisfying. Several of the characters are shot during the melee at the Coliseum. Two end up at the hospital being rushed into intensive care or surgery (we’re never told). Then the story is over. We never know who lives or who dies, or what happens to any of the characters after this life-changing event at the powwow. Maybe that’s the next novel? We know that Tony is dead (shot five times by a single-shot plastic gun) and he hears the birds signing as he drifts into death. That’s all the closure we get, and since Tony was the first character we met and the last one we read about, I suppose the author thinks that means the story has come full circle. I would disagree.