Tommy Orange’s debut novel has been one of the few fiction titles to break through in a year when politics and Trump-related books have sucked much of the air out of the room. The good news is that of the handful of novels getting read and discussed these days, the attention given to “There There” is fully warranted. The novel opens with several short character studies of Native Americans living in and around Oakland over the last few decades; the stories begin to interconnect and overlap as the novel moves toward its inevitably ill-fated conclusion. Along the way, the observations of this motley group of single moms, petty drug dealers, estranged family members, and dysfunctional shut-ins are funny, poignant, and heartbreaking.
Orange inhabits his diverse cast of characters with ease, portraying a proud but fraying culture that’s continually trying to find its authentic identity within a larger society that is indifferent, at best, and more frequently, outright hostile. The effects of 5+ centuries years of marginalization and antagonism toward Native Americans is unflinchingly grim.
Knobs of wisdom emerge unexpectedly in the text, rippling with meaning both for the characters on the page and for the part of us all that feels disenfranchised. Their outsider identities tap into something universal, but the extremity of their other-ness is on a scale that few of us can fully imagine.
We all lack the answers to larger questions of our existence — no matter our background or our lot in life. And the alienation that reverberates from life’s elusive mysteries is what drives us to “keep going.” It’s not a lot to hang your hat on, but there’s a morsel of solace to be found in that observation.