There There

Tommy Orange

Multilinear novels always take a risk of remaining fragmented, never fully weaving the strands together, and There There struggles with this a bit, its cast of characters all moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow where a violent catastrophe awaits. Starting with a lyrical prologue that briefly encapsulates a progression of Native American life from colonial horrors through to today’s urban communities, the first character-focused chapter immediately introduces the people who see the powwow as an opportunity for crime. The next chapter establishes the greater conceit of the novel through the character Dene Oxendene getting funding for a storytelling project through which he wants to capture stories from people in the Native community without any agenda. The intent of his project melds a bit with the book’s goals, providing an array of stories of Native people’s lives, that at some point I wondered if the novel was actually the art project. But then most of the chapters were not written like stories being narrated orally, so definitely not.

Waiting for his turn to meet the panel of judges that will decide which projects get funding, Dene has a conversation with another grant seeker who quotes Gertrude Stein on Oakland: “There is no there there,” but this guy misunderstands the quote as saying that Oakland was somehow an empty or unimportant place, which angers Dene precisely because he’d connected with this line himself.

Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore…. The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.

Tommy Orange has created a rich cast of characters connected in interesting ways, including a child who was given up for adoption, who readers will assume must show up eventually. But it takes a while to get there; the development of the book feels a little tedious. I was least interested in the chapters about the guys planning to rob the powwow, though Orange does provide context and backstory to understand them. Perhaps the initial chapters needed to be broken up a bit more and/or the connections needed to be shown or at least implied earlier. Or the book just needed to be bigger and more epic, as the ending felt too abrupt, like everything had just been lit up and then was suddenly extinguished — unless that feeling of loss and lack of resolution is exactly the emotion he wanted to convey.