Tuesday, September 24, 2019

There There by Tommy Orange

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. 

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. However, this one was an exception, because I had it on my reading list after it was mentioned on NPR. 

There There takes its name from a line from Gertrude Stein, in which she returned to Oakland, only to find that what she remembered was gone. “There is no there there.” Tommy Orange expands this idea to the concept that for Native Americans, there is no there there anymore, because what they once had lies buried under a conquering wave. The quote is doubly relevant, as the story is about Native Americans living in or otherwise connected to Oakland. 

The book starts with a prologue which is a damning indictment of the Native American Genocide and its lingering effects; all the injustice and cruelty inflicted by the white invaders is laid bare. It is quite a tour-de-force and could stand alone as its own essay. After this opening, the story itself begins. I wish I had done the “Russian Author Notetaking™” approach (I totally made that up) and drawn a diagram of the characters and their relationships. The problem is, I started the book away from home while waiting, and didn’t have paper handy. And by the time I did, I was halfway through the book, and didn’t feel like going back through it. 

Fortunately, afterward, I found a character list - and diagram - online. (H/T to The Lexington Bookie.) 

The book has twelve main characters, all of which get at least one chapter for their stories - and point of view. Some of these are told from the first person, and others from the third person. In addition, there are a large array of minor characters which are somewhat important to the plot. There is quite a mess, as you can see from the diagram below. While all the characters are related in that they either attend or are connected with someone who attends the big Oakland Pow Wow at the end, there are four groups of related characters. 

(Click on the diagram to enlarge)

As you can see, the one at the top is the biggest. The family of Vicky fill a lot of the stories, as the generational trauma plays out over and over. Moving clockwise, the next group has only one main character, and a fairly minor role in the drama. However, it fills in the constellation of dysfunction. 

Dene Oxendene is pretty close to a stand-in for the author himself. He is half white, half Native, and struggles with his identity. He decides to carry on his late uncle’s project of filming Native stories, after his uncle dies of alcoholism. To a degree, the book itself is that project, albeit in a different medium. The final group centers around characters involved in the drug trafficking trade. 

Keeping the characters straight is a challenge, I must admit. The relationships become more clear as the book goes on, fortunately. Some of our club members listened to it on audiobook, and noted that it was harder to keep track when listening than when reading. 

The book reads more like a series of related vignettes than a novel, in some ways. Rather than a narrative arc, it has themes, and seems intent on painting a broad picture, rather than moving from one place to another. It isn’t until the end when the stories converge that it feels connected, but even then, it is a connection of experience, of parallel yet different lives lived. Nothing wrong with this, of course. 

The central theme, as I see it, is one of identity. What does it mean to be Native? What makes one Native? Blood? Culture? For example, is half white Native or not? Does being raised by a white family after adoption make one white? 

All of the characters struggle, to some degree or another, with identity. Some, like the fairly functional Opal, seem to reject their Native roots altogether. Others become “1000 percent Indian,” as one character describes his father. (Probably representative of Orange’s own father - his white mother rejected his father’s culture as “witchcraft.”) For some, partaking in Native traditions such as drumming and dance make them feel connected. For others, they feel as if they are play acting. 

There are no answers, no epiphanies in this book. Orange just tells the stories and lets them hang there, uncomfortably. And he is seriously true to life there. My own experience has touched on these things. The neighborhoods I lived in as a child had lots of people who had this sort of poverty and intergenerational trauma that seemed and seems unfixable. I have seen too much of it in my legal practice too. The book ends kind of abruptly, with a number of threads still hanging. I felt like it was a bit of a “The Lady or the Tiger” sort of idea, while others of our club felt that things had been hinted at enough to figure out. 

One thing that we did agree on was that Orange writes exceedingly well. I wouldn’t say that the writing is beautiful like, say, Amor Towles, but it is language that brings you into an unfamiliar world. It is language that accomplishes its task perfectly. I can think of moments when I literally went back to my childhood, and could remember the very smells and colors of the houses of friends. I could hear the voices of a grandmother of a childhood friend, a mother stressed beyond endurance, an angry shout. It was an experience. If Orange set out to make a world come alive, he thoroughly succeeded. 

I have one other connection with the world of the book. My mom’s parents were missionaries to Mexico when she was a child, but returned to the United States later. For a period of a few years (I think ages 5 to 9 for me?) they lived in Oakland - the part of Oakland described in the book. We would catch the BART from the Fruitvale station and enter that tunnel toward the Lake Merritt station. Or, if we went the other way, the Coliseum was the next stop heading south. All those numbered streets. I can’t remember exactly which one their place was at - I was too young. I do remember taking the 580 to the 13, and getting off somewhere in the range of the 70th Street number. The houses were up and down duplexes, mostly. They ran a Spanish language church ministry of some sort called Harvest House. I can’t find anything about it on Google, so I suspect it is long gone, perhaps a victim of changing demographics. So this book brought back those memories too. Back in the 80s, ghetto Oakland was a crazy mix of colors and nationalities, and you could pass a Vietnamese grocery and see some guys out break dancing on a piece of cardboard. It came as no surprise to me that Oakland has ten thousand or so Native Americans there. 

The book definitely led to an interesting discussion with our club. (I won’t get into all of the personal experiences, as interesting as they were, but I think people revealed more about themselves than in most of our discussions. And I mean that in the best possible way.) 

There There is an example of why reading can be a powerful means of understanding. I lack personal knowledge of certain experiences. Tommy Orange has had some of those experiences, and is able to bring them to life in his book. All of us in the club were able to take a fresh look at a different perspective - and find ways that we shared some of the same feelings in our own circumstances. I’m not going to claim that we suddenly are experts on the Native experience. Certainly not. But we have another voice now that we have heard, and have that much more in common ground. It’s an interesting book, and Orange is a promising young author with a unique voice. 


A significant plot point turns on a 3-D printed gun. I wasn’t that familiar with the details, so I looked some up. Of course, improvised weapons are nothing new. I remember a bit of a panic about “zip guns” - supposedly gang members were making them out of auto antennae. I suspect there was more of media hype than reality in this. What does seem clear is that in the US, because it is so easy to get a gun, improvised weapons are pretty rare. 

As far as 3-D printing goes, there are limits. For the plastic kind that feature in the book, you use a nail for the firing pin (that was my biggest question), and they have limited lifespans. You can print a metal one, but the equipment for that costs far, far more than a black market gun. Essentially, then, the only people that would (at present) go that route would be those who just want to print a gun, not those looking for a cheaper way to arm themselves illegally. The plastic ones, in contrast, have the advantage of being very difficult to detect. And the disadvantage that most improvised weapons share: terrible accuracy. 

One thing that did rather surprise me is that in most of the US, it is perfectly legal to make a firearm. As long as you make it detectable by a metal detector. Obviously, if you cannot legally possess a firearm, you can’t legally make one either. 

For more, here is the Popular Science article on the printed plastic gun. Although technology will likely improve with time, it seems that this one isn’t of much use except to smuggle past metal detectors. The printers are expensive - unless you are making a lot, it would just be cheaper to get a black market gun. And those are easy enough to find in Oakland. And are more durable, more accurate, and so on. The smart money would be on them being used mostly by terrorists intent on suicide missions requiring undetectable weapons, not your average drug dealer or redneck asshat. 

One other thing that does come to mind - and Tommy Orange gets it right: ammunition still has to be made out of metal. So you still have that problem. And also, because modern ammo requires high explosives (in the primers) and industrial manufacturing tolerances, it is the ammo, not the guns, which are the weak link in the supply chain. California finally got it right by requiring background checks for ammo, not just guns. Now, to eliminate the ludicrous immunity provisions which prevent lawsuits against the various parts of the supply chain for both guns and ammo. I wager that if they feared getting sued, they would suddenly give (as a legal colleague once said) a “very deep, meaningful shit” about keeping their products out of the wrong hands. 


Just for fun, since I haven’t done it, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

No comments:

Post a Comment