Winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize (for Best First Book), Orange’s debut novel offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, California, through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters.
In Tommy Orange’s There There, an ambitious meditation on identity and its broken alternatives, on myth filtered through the lens of time and poverty and urban life, on tradition all the more pressing because of its fragility, it is as if he seeks to reconfigure Oakland as a locus of desire and dreams, to remake the city in the likeness of his large and fascinating set of characters ... Orange makes Oakland into a 'there' that becomes all the more concretely, emphatically and fully so in a novel that deals, in tones that are sweeping and subtle, large-gestured and nuanced, with what the notion of belonging means for Native Americans ... The novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.
Everything about There There acknowledges a brutal legacy of subjugation — and shatters it. Even the book’s challenging structure is a performance of determined resistance. This is a work of fiction, but Orange opens with a white-hot essay. With the glide of a masterful stand-up comic and the depth of a seasoned historian, Orange rifles through our national storehouse of atrocities and slurs, alluding to figures from Col. John Chivington to John Wayne. References that initially seem disjointed soon twine into a rope on which the beads of American hatred are strung ... Orange makes little concession to distracted readers, but as the number of characters continues to grow we begin to grasp the web of connections between these people ... As these individual stories intersect, the plot accelerates until the novel explodes in a terrifying mess of violence. Technically, it’s a dazzling, cinematic climax played out in quick-cut, rotating points of view. But its greater impact is emotional: a final, sorrowful demonstration of the pathological effects of centuries of abuse and degradation.
Tommy Orange’s There There is one of those remarkable debuts that doesn’t come around too often: a groundbreaker. It’s a furious, eloquent, propulsive, multi-voiced portrait ... among Orange’s achievements in this powerful, polyphonic, 'hella sad' novel is to locate the missing 'there' — by painting a disturbing but compassionate picture of how historical displacement has reverberated in the lives of a group of descendents of indigenous Americans in contemporary Oakland ... With There There, Tommy Orange has certainly done his bit, not only keeping history alive but adding a significant new chapter to Native American literature.