Tommy Orange's completely absorbing, character-rich, kinda funny, mostly pretty sad, definitely existentially fraught, fast-paced-but-not-really-"propulsive"-until-the-end debut novel, There There, is a hymn to Urban Indians.
Urban Indians "know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls," Orange writes in a prologue that hits with the paradigm-shifting power of the opening chapter of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
"We know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread—which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing."
In the book, Orange weaves together the first person perspectives of his twelve Urban Indians characters, all of whom find themselves en route to an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Some of them are going to the powwow to participate in the dance competition. Some are going to the powwow to connect with long lost relatives. But others are going to the powwow to steal the big cash prize.
Orange's matter-of-fact tone, his steady syntactical rhythms, and his thrilling plot keeps you turning pages. Those who take their time will appreciate how Orange organically embeds into his language complex notions about Native identity and the power of place, but even those who don't can pick it up easily.
Take the title, for instance. There There. The English undergrad will immediately catch the reference to Gertrude Stein's famous line in Everybody's Autobiography. When the canonical Modernist returned to her old stomping grounds in Oakland—a place Orange knows well—only to discover that the city had turned her old neighborhood into an industrial park, she said, "There is no there there," no essence of place now that the neighborhood as she knew it was no longer there.
But, in a little bit of a cheeky way, the title also offers consolation for those who fret about a place as if it were anything other than what we make of it: "There there, Gertrude Stein. It's not so bad. Imagine how a Native from Oakland feels."
And yet anyone can see that the words There There are doubling up on themselves, almost insisting that there is something there there. But then the Radiohead fan comes along and bums everyone out by recalling the best song on Hail to the Thief, and maybe even the best line in that song: "Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there." Rather than keep all this great analysis buried in allusion, he has his characters openly discuss all this stuff.
Contemporary conversations about Native American identity reflect these contradictory truths about Oakland, and in the intersecting storylines of his characters, Orange reveals that wrestling with these truths and contradictions is what binds his different characters together. What does it mean to be Native American? How Indigenous does a person have to be to be Indigenous? What's the appropriate personal and political response to generations of colonization, theft, and betrayal?
Orange offers one of many answers in a stirring passage from the perspective of Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who gives the following reply to her son, Orvil Red Feather, after he expresses consternation at the fact that she didn't teach him "anything about being Indian" due to her stressful work schedule: "Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen. You, me. Every part of our people that made it is precious. You're Indian because you're Indian because you're Indian."
Aside from powerfully condensing the view that the Native community decides who's Native and who's not while hinting at the way the stresses of Capitalism rob people of the their ability to pass down culture, the phrase echoes Stein's "rose is a rose is is a rose," which stitches back—both in its repetition and in its origin—to the book's title, There There. Adding to the allusive quality, this reference occurs in a section of the book called "Reclaim," which, of course, Orange kicks off with an epigraph by Stein about feathers. This subtle but deliberate act of literary reclamation and conversation speaks to an academic question about assimilation. Orange writes his Great American Novel, one could argue, in the language and tradition of colonizers. So does that mean he's perpetuating colonialism? No, not if he reclaims the language and the tradition for himself and for Native peoples.
Above all, every page of Orange's novel resists the genocidal idea that Native Americans only exist in history books, or in the form of plaster busts on truck stop shelves, or ironed onto the t-shirts of idiotic sports fans. He bucks the idea that Natives only live on reservations or want to return to nature. He's also written the best novel I've read this year. Go listen to him read from it.