There are a lot of characters—a full dozen POVs and a smattering of side characters—to keep track of in Tommy Orange’s There There. But even though reading the novel means keeping track of this person and that person as they appear and disappear within There There‘s various narratives, Orange’s considerable skill as a writer means these don’t make you feel inundated with names and details that may or may not matter to the overall arc. Rather, the end product of this novel is a feeling that you’ve spent time with members of a community with all their various quirks and problems, and it is masterful.
The first person we meet is a drug dealer whose life is marked by what he calls “the Drome” (fetal alcohol syndrome) and who has been raised by his long-suffering grandmother. Second chapter, a hopeful young filmmaker applying and interviewing for a grant to work on his first documentary, an oral history of the urban American Indian experience. These polar opposites in personality and ambitions—and circumstances—set the stage for an at-times dizzying survey of a wildly diverse group of characters, including a pair of aging sisters, teens who embrace their heritage and teens for whom heritage is a footnote, recovering alcoholics and addicts, definitely-not-recovering alcoholics and addicts, and a pair of new friends who do not realize they are siblings. Almost all are Native, and while many of them are related by various ways, each remains distinct.
To begin with in There There, you’re not altogether sure why you’re reading about this person and that person, how all of these disparate people connect with each other. When we see the wanna-be filmmaker get the green light on his documentary, it seems to click. Ah, you say, all these people must eventually be part of this project.
Apologies for the minor spoiler, but you are wrong. Many of them are connected in that way, too, but not all of them. The event that really binds them all together doesn’t get hinted at until halfway through the book, and doesn’t become clear until nearly the end. Whether that’s a strength or weakness to the book depends on your point of view and how assertive you like your narrative to be. There There is unquestionably a literary work, which affords it some flexibility in that respect. Much of the book almost reads like a story cycle, similar to how Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth (also excellent) surveyed, with little overlap or recapitulation, the residents of a small Russian village in the wake of a tragedy. In the case of Disappearing Earth, most of the chapters were previously published as short stories. Some of There There was previously published, too, but in his author’s note, Orange says There There was always conceived of as a novel, albeit one whose parts could occasionally function outside of the larger narrative.
While, again, mentioning that there is a major event at the end that ties everyone together is somewhat of a spoiler, I don’t think seeing that forecasted (or having some rando book reviewer give you a hint) reduces the impact of what happens. Because this isn’t a novel driven by what happens; this is a story about, like the filmmaker says, the nuanced and unique experiences of American Indians living and bearing their heritage not on a reservation but in a major metropolitan area. Despite the similar goal of Orange and that character, I never got the sense that the filmmaker was a stand-in for Orange. Rather, the filmmaker, like the other characters, he feels distinct and compiled of his own hopes and frustrations.
And in those unique-feeling hopes and frustrations with each character that we meet comes a sense of honesty. Orange never attempts to excuse behavior or sway the audience into liking someone who is difficult to like. There is no sense of justice in this world, where those who are kind succeed and those who do wrong fail, nor is there a feeling of comeuppance when an unpleasant person meets their end. It all feels as if Orange has simply allowed them to exist, rather than willed them into being. That’s a rare quality, and one that I’ve missed since finishing the book. I can’t wait to read what Tommy Orange writes for us next.