There There, by Tommy Orange, is one of the must-read novels of the year. You could read instead the third or fourth novel by a writer that you know you already love. But this is a debut, and the writing is so strong that, in my opinion, it requires your attention.
In our time, the TV shows never run out. In television’s early days through the 70’s, by the dawn hours at the latest, stations would run out of programming and would show a coma-inducing signal instead, called the Indian Head test pattern. That’s how this novel about urban Native Americans, toughing it out in Oakland, California opens.
During his tale, Orange will quote Brecht, Genet, Baudelaire and Gertrude Stein among others-I may have missed some-all very aptly. Orange is a writer of exciting range and originality, from the harrowing of the soul to the Fruitvale BART station and from flying drones to beating drums at the stadium powwow that concludes the novel. There There is a beating drum and its volume is commendably loud.
The story is divided into many discrete chapters which are mostly named after the character they feature. In creative writing, it’s easier to introduce new characters than to sustain interest in just a few over many pages and that may have happened here. But There There is also about the collective identity of the members of the tribe-and I mean our human tribe as well as a more specific ethnic identity-so it requires a broad range. It’s not of every novel that you can say: “This story represents all of us.” But Tommy Orange has come close.
About halfway through the novel, the character-named chapters start repeating, and each time a character is revisited depth is added to their portrait. The story keeps moving to higher power levels and by the time you are in the last third of the plot, Orange’s strengths as a writer can’t be contained by this rather fussy demarcation into discrete chapters. It’s wonderful to watch a writer come into their own.
Pay attention please: Tommy Orange is a genius in search a writing form that will suit him. Mr. Orange, please keeping writing, writing. Your readers, newly minted, of which I am one, are looking forward to your books.