‘There There’

‘There There’ by Tommy Orange, Knopf, 2018, 294 pages., $25.95

The title of this shattering and original first book from Tommy Orange references a phrase found in a couple of places. Gertrude Stein said famously, and with a kind of “painful nostalgia” about her hometown of Oakland, Calif., “There is no there there.”

The lyrics of the song “There There” by British rock group Radiohead tell us

Just ’cause you feel it

Doesn’t mean it’s there

(Someone on your shoulder)

(Someone on your shoulder)

There there

That “something” is on the shoulders of all 12 of the characters of Orange’s novel, all of whom are urban American Indians — the author rejects the term “Native American.” Each of those characters has a story to tell, each story remarkably similar to that of every other character, stories of displacement and survival.

In a stunning non-fiction “Prologue,” Orange sets the scene with direct and stirring clarity: “Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and of freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread.”

“There There” takes place mostly in and around Oakland, Calif. Each of its chapters is given the name of the character it focuses on. Some characters are presented in third person, some in first person, one in second person. All have a sense of their culture, but know very little about it. Some are more curious about it than others.

All are directly or vaguely victimized by their ethnic history. To deal with his Fetal Alcohol Syndrome — “The Drome,” he calls it — Tony Loneman spends his days riding his bike all over Oakland.

Dene Oxendene, a graffiti artist whose tag is “Lens,” tries to get a grant to direct a documentary that will interview the Indians of Oakland about, well, what it means to be an Indian in Oakland.

Orvil Red Feather has learned time-honored Indian dances via YouTube.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield remembers occupying Alcatraz for a while as a young girl.

Jacqui Red Feather, who has occupied Alcatraz for a while, too, is now a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor on her way back to Oakland with the father of her child.

Slowly the seemingly disparate stories of the seemingly disparate characters coalesce, drawn together by something indefinable: “We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid — tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here.”

For some, that powwow is intended to be a sort of transcendent exploration of a shared history. For others, the intention is utterly unscrupulous: the powwow is the place to effect a major burglary easily and unencumbered.

That powwow and the ensuing violence and chaos is the major set-piece of the novel and its major accomplishment. Related in very short chapters that maintain their characters’ original points of view — some chapters are shorter than a page — the powwow becomes a phantasmagoria brilliantly reflecting the violence and chaos experienced by and therefore learned by the American Indian over the past centuries.

Early in “There There,” Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield recalls that her mother believed that the only way to set the past right was “being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories.” That is the story being told by this passionate and compassionate first novel from Tommy Orange.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.