“That's what I'm trying to get out of this whole thing. All put together, all our stories. Because all we got right now are reservation stories, and shitty versions from outdated history textbooks.”
In terms of narrative device, structure, pacing, and plot, Tommy Orange does nothing new with his debut There There. In many ways, this novel is the plot-driven, multi-voiced narrative we have come to expect from the lot of best-selling book club selections. It falls into the trend that seemed wholly fun and still original ten years ago, but has since perhaps become cloying. This presentation is still effective and often successful, it's just that it feels too familiar.
So what makes There There one of the best books of 2018? Sure, the story is interesting. The characters are well rounded. The pacing, the setting... All that jazz. What I loved about There There was the way it turned my expectation of Native American literature on its head. Through his characters and his own authorial intrusions, Orange asks some stellar questions about the story of Indigenous people. Can a story be true to Native American traditions and still be modern?
The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it's stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn't pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern?
Orange accomplishes this by including a diverse cast. Yes, they're all Native Americans, but no two are alike. And certainly none of them fulfill all of the tropes most readers have come to expect from an Indigenous character. They're young and old, thugs and nerds, focused and lost. The story also utilizes varied components, from a pow-wow and a beer bottle to a drone and a 3-d printed gun. This is far from just another “reservation story.”
I'm willing to bet that were a few titles published in 2018 that could surpass this one in my opinion, but I have yet to read those. For all the books I did read this past year, There There was the most riveting, wonderfully drawn, and surprising. I look forward to seeing what Orange does next.