We hope you are enjoying Tommy Orange’s kaleidoscopic debut, There There, our November California Book Club selection. The many contemporary stories of the 2018 novel rivet us. But intense essayistic interventions in the prologue and interlude and certain passages of dialogue ensure we understand the history that girds the characters’ stories, the source of their melancholia.
An epigraph to the book’s interlude from poet Charles Baudelaire’s notes, “Life swarms with innocent monsters.” The juxtaposition of “innocent” and “monsters” interrogates the purported “innocence” of a country and systems founded on massacres. While the prologue and interlude are potent, it is the novel’s dozen indelible characters who make Orange’s complex orchestration remarkable. No single point of view prevails, and we enter deep into their distinct psyches, and yet the plot moves. How does Orange manage that?
It might be the honesty with which these characters are drawn. What they think. How they think. They are hard to look away from, especially or perhaps because the author foreshadows the violence that will visit them. You might sympathize with Dene Oxendene, a documentary filmmaker who is hoping to record the stories of Urban Indians that, like the stories the novel gathers, are not reservation stories. There is Edwin Black, who dreams of becoming a writer and spends too much time online obsessing over metacognition. He notes that “the internet is like a brain trying to figure out a brain.”
Or maybe you’ll be tugged along by a chapter in which we meet Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her sister, Jacquie Red Feather, as children whose different fathers have left their mother. In a later chapter, Opal is a mail carrier who loves Motown; like several other characters, she “got big to avoid shrinking.” She takes care of Jacquie’s curious, observant grandson Orvil Red Feather. Orvil notes that Opal “is openly against any of them doing anything Indian. She treated it all like it was something they could decide for themselves when they were old enough. Like drinking or driving or smoking or voting. Indianing.”
Maybe you’ll nod along with Calvin Johnson, large, resistant, whose father never talked about being Native. Although he has never been to a powwow, his careless joke results in the name of the event that the novel builds toward: “Big Oakland Powwow.”
The interlude warns us: “The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.”
The past is never past, but here, it moves us without falling into a lethal sentimentality. How do a people who have faced horrific atrocities forge connections with one another without permitting those losses to define them entirely?
The novel refracts this massive, complicated question through the keen particularities of its characters. Orange’s careful grounding in the specifics of Urban Indian experiences in Oakland enlivens the novel while also, somehow, strengthening its insights. These are insights so powerful that they might hold true for violence against other people, in other places, in other times. And so, this week, we have a heart-wrenching essay by Alta associate editor Ajay Orona that considers his grandmother’s stories of the Armenian genocide alongside his reading of Orange’s novel.
We also have a knowledgeable, attentive examination of There There’s opening pages by critic and poet Rebecca Morgan Frank. She probes the disturbing American history they recount and repeat, and how this history sets the stage for one unforgettable character, Tony Loneman.
These essays are intended to deepen your experience of reading Orange's seminal Oakland novel.•
Join us on November 18 at 6 pm, when Orange will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Please note that this event has been moved from 5 pm to 6 pm. In the meantime, gather in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the fascinating characters of There There with your fellow California Book Club members.
INSIGHTS ACROSS CULTURES
HAUNTED BY BRUTALITY
DECONSTRUCTION OF SELF
Claire Vaye Watkins’s second novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, is autofiction that centers on a woman protagonist with the author’s name who reckons with why it remains a radical act for women to pursue their pleasure. —Alta
EXCITING NEW RELEASES
ISOLATION AND ASSIMILATION
Los Angeles writer Kyle Lucia Wu is interviewed in connection with her debut, Win Me Something, about a biracial Chinese American woman. Wu explains, “It’s examining the way we can overlook the experiences of others if we’re not conscious about the differences.” —Orange County Register
STANDOUT ESSAY COLLECTION
An interview with Jackson Bliss, the Southern California author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments, considers the role of politics in art, as well as hapa (mixed race) and Nisei identity. —Zyzzyva
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