THERE THERE: BOOK REVIEW
I often read to escape the passage of time. Whether I’m willfully ignoring a deadline, staving off boredom, or attempting to recuperate my senses after receiving bad news, I find that to read is to be ensconced. Here, the past and the future can fade away: all that exists is the page you are currently reading, and the scene it’s recounting. You can flip back and revisit your favorite moments; you can skip scenes that are displeasing or overwhelming; and at any time, you are at liberty to shut your book and never touch it again. In a way, reading a book alleviates the pain of that inevitability which always accompanies the passage of time: the knowledge that every moment will produce another moment, no matter what you do.
But There There by Tommy Orange is not so simple. Like many other books I love, There There is a multigenerational saga: a book whose plot spans many decades and many families, although, in one way or another, all of its characters are related. There are 12 narrators— Tony Loneman, Dene Oxendene, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, Edwin Black, Bill Davis, Calvin Johnson, Jacquie Red Feather, Orvil Red Feather, Octavio Gomez, Daniel Gonzales, Blue, and Thomas Frank. Most of them live in and around Oakland, CA.
There There is also about history. Tommy Orange is Cheyenne and Arapaho, and there are times in the book when an omniscient narrator (who could, perhaps, be Orange) interrupts his cast of characters to tell an even wider story: the story of colonization, and the violence it has wrought on Indigenous communities. He speaks of massacres, of displacement, of dehumanizing caricatures, and of so much more. And echoes of this violence reverberate throughout every vignette. The violence of imperialism finds itself mirrored in tiny interactions, in microaggressions that portend something deeper and more malevolent.
In my opinion, all of it ties back to time. In this book, there are no people without history, and there is no history without people. The lines between a history textbook and personal narrative blur; every page, every interaction, contains an infinity of moments, all inextricable from one another. And though nonlinear plots can often feel contrived, Tommy Orange writes a story that, in all of its mysticism, feels faithful to reality. It is the passage of time at its messiest.
What, really, is so scary about time? Space is the realm of things that are: buildings, landscapes, bodies. But it is time that imbues objects with meaning. Time creates and destroys: it gives rise to limits, and if there’s anything humans hate, its limits.
However, time is also the one thing that is permanent. Things can die or disappear, but memories of those things remain forever. If they are forgotten, memories of memories remain, in the form of hints or subconscious resonances. Maybe this is why time is so scary: because nothing awful ever truly disappears. Tommy Orange knows this; he exploits this fact to maximum effect in There There. Characters that want desperately to forget trauma find that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot. The arc of the story twists and turns every which way, bringing together people that never wanted to see each other again, or that have always been looking for each other but don't quite know what to do next. This book stays with you. Every moment slopes towards infinity.
At one point in the book, we learn why it is called There There. It is in allusion to something that Gertrude Stein once said: “there’s no there there,” in reference to a childhood neighborhood in Oakland that had since been paved over. To make his title, Tommy Orange flips the quote. There is a there there, and there is always a there there. The “there there” lies in the dissonance between what was and what is, in the ineradicable and eternal. In short, it lies in the realm of time.