Tommy Orange's debut novel, There There, introduces readers to a complex cast of characters one at a time. Voices are developed over chapters, and the relationships between the characters are slowly and delicately revealed as the book progresses. The structure spins a narrative spiderweb, just as spiderwebs are one of the book’s motifs. Some of these connections are tenuous, such as a mere run-in outside a house, while others are deeper: an unknown son, an estranged grandmother.
As these stories unfold, the reader is drawn into the center of the web: the Big Oakland Powwow. This centripetal force gathers everyone in the same space, where tragedy strikes and a whole new set of bonds is forged.
The techniques of polyphony that Orange uses are found in other forms of storytelling. Below are five ensemble films that construct their worlds with images and atmosphere that gradually unite characters’ journeys as seemingly distinct plots move toward a single powerful event.•
Join us on November 18 at 6 p.m., when Orange will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Please note that the time of the event has been moved from the usual 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. In the meantime, gather in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the fascinating characters of There There with your fellow California Book Club members.
A fatal car crash provides a point of intersection for Octavio, a man pining for his brother’s wife, Susana; a Spanish supermodel named Valeria who is healing from a broken leg in a house with her lover; and El Chivo, an unhoused hit man, in the first movie of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Trilogy of Death. The stories find further common ground with the presence of dogs, which are critical to each of the characters. Octavio, who needs money to run away with Susana, makes cash by entering his dog, Cofi, in a series of dog fights. The disappearance of Valeria’s dog triggers the start of her relationship’s demise. And El Chivo nurses strays and rescues Cofi after the car accident. Like There There, Amores Perros is a beautiful exploration of its characters’ emotions. Both fuse themes of love and violence, but Iñárritu and Orange approach their similar polyphonic structure using different tactics. Orange’s novel repeatedly foreshadows an occurrence at the Big Oakland Powwow, but readers may not realize it will be a tragedy of such magnitude. In Amores Perros, the full horror of the car accident unfolds before viewers meet the victims.
One of director Spike Lee’s seminal movies features an array of dynamic characters moving about their lives on a scorching summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The cast is introduced in a staggered manner, and relationships between people aren’t clearly delineated at first, but the day in question revolves largely around the local Italian American–owned pizzeria. Different characters come in and out of the establishment, whose owner, along with his older son, increasingly spews racist comments at the primarily Black residents of the neighborhood. Lee himself plays one of the main characters, Mookie, a pizza delivery boy. We also meet Da Mayor, an old man who walks up and down the blocks and has a soft spot for Mother Sister, a woman who sits on her windowsill watching the activity on the street. There, a group of cool teens, a trio of lively middle-aged men, and other characters spend their day. Tragedy befalls Radio Raheem, who carries a boom box that provides much of the film’s soundtrack.
Mitzuko and Jun, two young Japanese travelers, arrive in Memphis one night, eager to be in the same town as the lauded birthplace of rock and roll: Sun Studio. While it might sound nauseating, these two make passing perfect plumes of cigarette smoke into each other’s mouths look extraordinarily cool as they wander through the city. They arrive at the Arcade Hotel. It’s cheap and shabby. Next, we meet Luisa, an Italian widow trying to get her husband’s body home to Rome. She, too, ends up at the Arcade Hotel that night, where she shares a room with the loquacious Dee Dee. And finally, there is a neighborhood barber (played by Steve Buscemi) out for a night of boozing with an unemployed Brit (played by Joe Strummer). As luck would have it, they also find refuge at the Arcade after shooting up a liquor store. We follow each set of characters through a subfilm, and each subfilm ends with a gunshot that rings through the hotel as the characters prepare to leave the Arcade in the morning. By the end of the final segment, their relationships to one another have become clear. The final scene of the film presents the departure from Memphis of at least a single character from every story.
This complicated meta movie starts with Clive, an alcoholic author trying to write his next novel. The film cuts between shots of Clive writing and the scenes he is writing, which are filled with characters reimagined from his life. The film breaks the fourth wall at points, and Clive speaks his ideas directly to us. We learn that he’s in failing health, and as time appears to lose all linear quality and memory becomes a faculty that cannot be trusted, what is real is called into question. Although the characters don’t tell their own stories, Clive’s versions gradually reveal his own insecurities, and the real people on whom these characters are based (and whom we have not yet truly encountered) come together to celebrate Clive’s birthday in an eerily idyllic garden. The festivities end abruptly as clouds fill the sky. Clive demands his guests leave without speaking, and it appears that this may be his final farewell to them. Instead of culminating in the external chaos and tragedy of There There and many of these films, Providence concludes with the author’s own deterioration.
Director Robert Altman’s 1975 tour de force follows 24 main characters over the course of five days as they prepare for a gala concert being thrown to usher in a new presidential candidate. The film cuts deep into the music scene in Nashville, with characters recording songs at studio sessions, singing in Black Baptist choirs, presenting at open mic nights, and performing giant concerts. Although most of the characters are part of the music industry and directly involved in the gala concert, we also meet a chauffeur, a war veteran, and an airport restaurant cook. When these characters end up at the same place for the gala, bullets fly. As with There There, violence becomes the point around which everything converges.