The Soundscapes of Tommy Orange

His debut novel, There There, contains songs of wonder, grief, and the search for identity.

there there, tommy orange, television text pattern
Alta

Perhaps in the future what we will say about film is that it rescued the novel, not that it destroyed the form. Twenty years into this century, novels of great quality continue to be written, books of extraordinary variety and spoken musics, many of them informed by the techniques of filmmaking. The novel reinterpreted as rolling documentary (Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses), the novel as fractured archive (Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd), the novel as endless jump cut (Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights). The novel as mood piece disguised as cultural history (Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers).

Film has long since tempered the intensities of modernity’s idea of consciousness. Now, in the 21st century, the symbiosis between forms is at its most powerful in the gestures and methods that create areas of space, sound, and portraiture. And here is where Tommy Orange’s genius achieves its full complexity. There There, Orange’s 2018 debut novel, is a series of linked stories set in Oakland about a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho men and women who are preparing for a powwow at the Coliseum. An event of symbolic importance, in which people can see one another being seen for what they believe they are—Native. But of course even the characters in this book, many of whom struggle mightily, privately, with what it means to be Native, know that external performance is only part of identity. How else, this novel seems to ask its participants and readers, can we see one another?

There There is Orange’s magnificent answer. The novel is structured like a series of tightening loops. We meet each character in a longish chapter, then we see them again in shortened moments. As we get closer to the book’s denouement, an act of violence we know is coming from the early appearance of a gun made with a 3-D printer, the chapters get shorter, more associative. The depth and range of the early portraits of each of the book’s 12 main characters is deployed, put in motion, and scrambled.

Drawing a character rapidly is intensely risky in fiction because it tends to channel broad characterizations. Orange circumvents these risks with his amazing ear. From the very beginning of this book, with its bravura prelude chapter, a rapid driving tour of Native history in America, and the reasons modern life is so rarely seen, the book is sonically rich. Poetic. Recalling the test pattern that once closed down every station broadcast in America, it makes the connection between static and sound and the distortions much of America has with seeing Native life right before them:

If you left the TV on, you’d hear a tone at 440 hertz—the tone used to tune instruments—and you’d see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes. There was what looked like a bull’s eye in the middle of the screen, with numbers like coordinates. The Indian’s head was just above the bull’s eye, like all you’d need to do was nod up in agreement to set the sights on the target. This was just a test.

There There sets out to deprogram this coinage with a dozen portraits of people connected to the powwow that day. They range from a groundskeeper at the Coliseum to the newly sober grandmother of one of the young dancers. One of them is a budding filmmaker with a grant to record Native people talking about their lives. Each chapter and portrait sets up the next, through lineage and contact—so the overall feel is of disparate connectedness.

The most lonely of the figures is at the center of the wheel, the provocatively named Tony Loneman, who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome as a child—the result of the drinking his mother did when he was in utero. Doctors and counselors say it hasn’t affected his intelligence, which is proof in other ways that it has—and Tony knows this. He’s aware when he is being handled, managed, treated as though he is a walking syndrome.

Tony also sees people seeing him, a powerful moment of disintermediation and a potent place for this cycle of tales to begin. “The Drome first came to me in the mirror when I was six,” Tony begins. “Why’s your face look like that?” a classmate asks him. Back home, Tony turns on the TV, and for a split second, he sees himself as a stranger: “I saw my face in the dark reflection there. It was the first time I saw it. My own face, the way everyone else saw it.”

This moment of confused reflection occurs and recurs throughout There There as various characters pause before mirrors, shiny surfaces, and even their iPhones, puzzled by what they see. A modern interpretation of the dilemma that haunts the hero of James Welch’s 1974 classic, Winter in the Blood, about a dissolute young Native man, spiraling in conversations and suicidal bouts of drinking, wondering if he’ll survive: “The distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.”

Orange’s book might awaken from a similar inner chill, but its power comes from its astonishing enmeshment—the way it has found a narrative rhythm and sound to portray people deeply grooved into one another’s lives. Even when they are absent. Many of the people in this book have missing fathers, who’ve stamped their lives onto their children’s faces and then reemerged in the modern-day arcade of copied images—Facebook. One of the characters, Edwin Black, sneaks onto his mother’s account on the hunch that she’s been talking to his birth father. “You look like me,” Edwin types to his father, Harvey, now 30 years sober and living in Arizona. After seeing a selfie of his son, the man types back. “Well shit.”

That little utterance is so typical of Orange’s huge register of speech. Brief, aural, absolutely hearable. Everything from slang to song to poetry emerges here and creates a rich weave of speech across generations. Many of the younger characters talk and rap and interrogate one another to a direct degree about their traditions, displaying a self-consciousness that is schooled in curation and sometimes even comforting. Orvil Red Feather, who will dance at the powwow, thinks about why he keeps gazing into a mirror, dressed up like an Indian. And yet, it’s “important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time.”

Orange gives a wide berth to his characters’ self-doubts. He acknowledges that in many of our lives, that’s where we live—in the space between faith in ourselves and self-hatred, between belief in traditions and embarrassment over their old-fashionedness. Tenderly, believably, Orange shows his characters seeing one another’s doubts and acknowledging them. “Like what’s a pow-wow,” Tony asks his peers at one point, which invites a round of rippling derision, before one of them says, quite simply, “They’re just old ways, Lony. We gotta carry it on.… If we don’t they might disappear.”

This tension between remembrance and forgetting forms one of the many infinite loops of There There. For a writer like Gertrude Stein, whose quote about Oakland after she left and returned—“There was no there there,” she wrote of it, in Everybody’s Autobiography—gives the book its title, forgetting is a force that can be absorbed. Erasure is proof of time passing. The endless American forgetting. It does not touch the bottom of her identity because she had by then removed herself from that part of the world and reinvented herself as a salon keeper in Paris.

There There succeeds so brilliantly because it folds the huge scale of epistemological concerns of being Native in a world after genocide into intimate, endless family issues. Should Edwin’s mother forget or forgive the horrific way she came to carry a child? Is the way his uncle drank a disease, a way to forget, or a slow-motion way to commit suicide? And before he goes, what should he tell his nephew and kids? Finally, what do the stories that the many people in this book tell themselves about one another carry forward—and what gets left out?

Moving from conversation to the novel—if this book were a film, it’d proceed from one chat to another—There There creates a sound of wonder, of mourning, of future-seeking. It orients this music so beautifully by threading it across Oakland like a string of pathways, looping past Fruitvale Station several times, pausing at crosswalks. By the book’s end you can almost retrace its peregrinations by memory.

What is this Oakland? It is a place more realistic than the tidy neighborhood of the ensemble-cast novels of America’s past, the Winesburg, Ohio, of Sherwood Anderson, the Brewster Place of Gloria Naylor, the Main Street of Sinclair Lewis. Although There There belongs among these books, it does something new and fresh. It creates a soundscape for a place and makes the place come to life through the way it manipulates that acoustical depth. Read the book even casually and patterns emerge—echoes, melodies made from questions.

The great sound engineer Walter Murch once wrote that “most of us are searching—consciously or unconsciously—for a degree of internal balance and harmony between ourselves and the outside world, and if we happen to become aware—like Stravinsky—of a volcano within us, we will compensate by urging restraint.” What Murch is addressing is an equilibrium between our inner and outer voice. But what if neither had ever been heard? What then? In There There, for reasons this book makes beautifully, forcefully clear, Orange’s characters are no longer going to listen to that voice of restraint. Thank God their author didn’t and now we have this astonishing, noisy, tremendous book.•

Join us on November 18 at 6 p.m., when Orange will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Kaveh Akbar. And visit the Alta Clubhouse to talk about There There with your fellow California Book Club members.

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