“There There”

There There

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, published in 2018. I read an Alfred A. Knopf first edition from the library.

Buy the Book.

3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Modern Native Americans living in Oakland converge on a powwow.

There There never tries to hide its climax. Early on, we know guns and bullets will be smuggled into the powwow and from there, we know there will be shooting and death, so I’m not going to be coy in this review about hiding it, either.

Orange’s writing is solid with refreshingly modern references and deeply effecting moments. Each chapter is named after its central character, some receiving many chapters, some with one. For the most part, I was able to keep the characters straight but near the end, when many of the characters find themselves in the same place, I had a hard time keeping up with who was who.

I wish There There had remained a collection of short stories with overlapping characters and no climatic final event. The book’s greatest strength is its characters. I was surprised by how much I liked each one I met in Part I. I would have read a whole book following their days and thoughts. I was more interested in that than the Reservoir Dogs-esque robbery gone wrong at the end.

If There There insists on having a mass shooting, then put it in the middle of the book right after the Interlude. Finishing a story at the point of a mass shooting makes the shooters the protagonists of your work. Simple as that. If the story ends there, then the story was about them. I would have liked to see the fallout of the event, seen how the country reacted to such a thing (how would America react if Native Americans perpetuated a mass shooting at a Native American event?), and seen how these characters coped and interacted.

This is a first novel and it shows in parts. The dialogue is awkward with page-long data dumps where people express themselves and their feelings with great detail in a way that seems more diary than speech.

An interesting stylistic choice made by Orange is telling different chapters of the same character in different ways: Tony Loneman’s first chapter (p.15) is in first person, past tense; his second chapter (p.142) is in third person, present tense. Calvin Johnson’s first chapter (p.88) is in first person, past tense; his second chapter (p.144) is in third person, past tense. Dene Oxendene and Jackie Red Feather have both of their first two chapters in third person, but Dene’s are both present tense while Jackie has past tense, then present. And so on. Orange has good control of every style and tense, but it was odd that many characters started in first person when the end is told completely in third person. Orange starts us very close to these characters only to pull us further and further away the more time we spend with them.



We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay.



The process that brings anything to its current form – chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise – doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth. Buildings, freeways, cars – are they not of the earth? Were they shipped in from Mars, the moon?


Part 1: Remain

 [3] Opening quote by Javier Marias (p.13).

Javier Marias (b.1951) is a Spanish novelist, translator, and columnist. He is one of Spain’s most celebrated novelists, and his work has been translated into 42 languages.


Everyone’s gonna think it’s about the money. But who doesn’t fucking want money? It’s about why you want money, how you get it, then what you do with it that matters.



Self-loathing hits you fast sometimes.


[6] The title works on three levels, two of which are acknowledged in the text:

Dean puts his headphones on (…) stays on “There There” by Radiohead. The hook is “Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”


(This is an excellent song, by the way.)

“You know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland? (…) There is no there there.”


The third, setting the somber, funereal mood for the thing, is the comforting phrase “there, there”, which already took a haunting tone for me from Catch-22 (see that review, note [4]).

[7] References:

He looks up and sees the Tribune Tower (…) Aside from the plain, average-height, checkered twin buildings that are the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building complex (…), the Oakland skyline lacks distinction.



The Tribune Tower is a 305-ft, 22-story building located in downtown Oakland, California. Built in 1906, tower erected in 1923, it was the tallest building in Oakland constructed in the 1920s. It is currently the 11th tallest building in Oakland. The building was opened in 1924 as the home of the Oakland Tribune newspaper, and is a symbol of both the Tribune and the city of Oakland. At various times, the building has flown a flag with the word, “THERE” emblazoned upon it, in reference to Gertrude Stein’s comment that in Oakland “there is no there there” (see note [6]). The Tower was damaged in the 1989 Lorma Preita earthquake. The Tribune moved permanently out of the Tower in 2007. The building now houses offices, the Tribune Tavern restaurant and Modern Coffee café on the ground level.

The Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building complex is a federal building complex in Oakland, constructed as part of the Oakland City Center redevelopment project. In 1998, the United States Congress passed a bill naming the building for former mayor and Congressman Ronald V. Dellums (1936-2018). It consists of two identical towers topped with pyramid-shaped roofs. Both buildings are 268 feet in height to roof.


“I’m still afraid of the dark,” he said. And it was like he was telling me something else.



I’d clicked a link to download The Lone Ranger. Everyone agreed on how bad it was, in so many ways. But I was excited to see it. There’s something about seeing Johnny Depp fail so badly that gives me strength.


[10] Reference:

When you search bezoar you’re led to The Picatrix. The Picatrix is a book of magic and astrology from the twelfth century originally written in Arabic and titled Ghayat al Hakim, meaning “The Goal of the Wise.”



Picatrix is the name used today for a 400-page book of magic and astrology originally written in Arabic, which most scholars assume was originally written in the middle of the 11th century, though an argument for composition in the first half of the 10th century has been made. The work was translated into Spanish and then into Latin during the 13th century, at which time it got the Latin title Picatrix.

[11] Reference:

I put my earphones in. Put on A Tribe Called Red.



A Tribe Called Red (often abbreviated as ATCR) is a Canadian electronic music group, who blend instrumental hip hop, reggae, moombahton (fusion of house and reggaeton) and dubstep-influenced dance music with elements of First Nations music, particularly vocal chanting and drumming.


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?


Part II: Reclaim 

[13] References:

Those were the years of Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, the bastard Charlie Finley.



Vida Blue (b.1949) is an American former Major League Baseball left-handed pitcher. During a 17-year career, he pitched for the Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, and Kansas City Royals. He won the American League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award in 1971.

James Augustus Hunter (1946-1999), nicknamed “Catfish”, was a professional baseball player in Major League Baseball (MLB). From 1965 to 1979, he was a pitcher for the Kansas City Athletics, Oakland Athletics, and New York Yankees. He is the subject of the Bob Dylan song “Catfish.”

Charlie Finley (1918-1996) was an American businessman who is best remembered for his tenure as the owner of MLB’s Oakland Athletics. Finley purchased the franchise while it was located in Kansas City, moving it to Oakland in 1968.

[14] References:

He loved The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.



Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) is the first novel by Oscar Zeta Acosta and it focuses on his own self-discovery in a fictionalized manner. An autobiography, the plot presents an alienated lawyer of Mexican descent, who works in an Oakland, California antipoverty agency, without any sense of purpose or identity.

The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973) is a novel by Oscar Zeta Acosta. It tells the story of a Chicano lawyer, Buffalo Zeta Brown, written by his son, Oscar Zeta Brown.

Oscar Zeta Acosta (1935 – disappeared 1974) was an American attorney, politician, novelist and activist in the Chicano Movement. (And I should have already known who he was because he was Hunter S. Thompson’s friend and inspiration for the character “Dr. Gonzo” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Acosta disappeared in 1974 during a trip in Mazatlan, Mexico, and is presumed dead.

[15] Reference:

“You told me I should go check out the powwow at Laney.”



Laney College is a public community college in Oakland, California. It is named after Joseph Clarence Laney and was founded in 1953.

According to Laney’s website, Joseph Clarence Laney (1881-1948) was President, Board of Education of Oakland public schools in the 1940s.

[16] Reference:

“You remember the time we went over to Dimond Park, and we went through that long sewer tube?”


According to the City of Oakland’s website:

Dimond Recreation Center boasts the Lions swimming pool, Sausal Creek, hiking trails, BBQ and picnic areas, a creek, park, swimming pool, hiking trails, two youth playgrounds, the Dimond Native Demonstration Garden, Dimond Education Garden and a Demo Food Garden. Available to rent is a commercial kitchen, deck and social hall.

The Dimond District in Oakland is named after Hugh Dimond, who came to California during the Gold Rush and purchased the land comprising the district in 1867.

[17] Reference:

Multiple Kokopellis, zigzag lines and spirals.



Kokopelli is a fertility deity, usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player (often with feathers or antenna-like protrusions on his head), who has been venerated by some Native American cultures in the Southwestern United States. Like most fertility deities, Kokopelli presides over both childbirth and agriculture. He is also a trickster god and represents the spirit of music.


“Silence is not just silence but is not speaking up.”


[19] Reference:

The trickster spider, Veho, her mom used to tell her and Opal about, he was always stealing eyes to see better.


According to www.native-languages.org/veeho.htm :

Veeho is the spider trickster of the Cheyenne tribe. Though he is associated with spiders and his name means “spider,” Veeho has the form of a man in every Cheyenne tale we know of. In some stories, Veeho plays the role of the clever and benevolent trickster/transformer hero, but in most stories, he is merely a silly and foolish character who behaves as inappropriately as possible by Cheyenne social standards. The literal meaning of Veeho’s Cheyenne name is “Spider.” It is given as “White-Man” in some older translations, but this is a misleading translation—the Cheyennes named white people after Veeho, not vice versa!

The site also links to Veeho stories, including two where he loses his eyeballs.

[20] Reference:

He listens exclusively to three rappers: Chance the Rapper, Eminem, and Earl Sweatshirt.



Thebe Neruda Kgositsile (b.1994), better known by his stage name Earl Sweatshirt, is an American rapper and record producer from Los Angeles. Kgositsile was originally known by the moniker Sly Tendencies when he started rapping, but soon changed his name when Tyler, the Creator invited him to join his alternative hip hop collective Odd Future in late 2009.

[21] Reference:

We come from towns on the sides of highways in northern Nevada with names like Winnemucca.



Winnemucca is the only incorporated city in and is the county seat of Humboldt County, Nevada. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 7,396. Interstate 80 passes through the city, where it meets U.S. Route 95.

[22] References:

There are Schimmel Sister stickers, and Navajo Nation stickers, Cherokee Nation stickers, Idle No More, and AIM flags duct-taped to antennas.



Shoni Schimmel (b.1992) is an American professional basketball player who is currently a free agent. She was an All-American college player at the University of Louisville and a first round draft pick of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. Schimmel was raised on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Mission, Oregon and was the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Jonathan Hock called Off the Rez, which chronicled her journey to earn an NCAA scholarship with her basketball ability. Schimmel has a younger sister, Jude, who was also a teammate of hers at Louisville.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) is a Native American advocacy group in the United States, formed in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From November 1969 to June 1971, AIM participated in the occupation of the abandoned federal penitentiary known as Alcatraz (see note [36]).

[23] Reference:

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written in his own blood. Now Muslim leaders aren’t sure what to do with it. To have written a Quran in blood was a sin, but to destroy it would also be a sin.



The “Blood Qur’an” is a copy of the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, claimed to have been written in the blood of Saddam Hussein over the course of two years in the late 1990s. Saddam commissioned the book in 1997 on his 60th birthday, reportedly to give thanks to God for helping him through many “conspiracies and dangers.” Saddam’s act was denounced in 2000 by the religious authorities of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and, after his fall from power in 2003, the Qur’an was removed from public display.

Part III: Return


Bad luck or just bad shit happening to you in life can make you secretly superstitious, can make you want to take some control or take back some sense of control.



She believes we all do precisely what we think we can get away with.


[26] Reference:

I went in and bought a fifth of E&J.



E&J Gallo Winery is a winery and distributor headquartered in Modesto, California. It was founded in 1933 by Earnest Gallo and Julio Gallo, and is the largest exporter of California wines.


“We all fuck up. It’s how we come back from it that matters.”


[28] The one character and plot point I was totally lost on was Manny. Did we actually see Manny die in the book? Who exactly was Manny? I didn’t go back to see. (Which says a lot about how I was feeling about the book by page 188.)

[29] Reference:

“Up north a ways, just past Weatherford [Oklahoma], there’s a town there called Dead Women Crossing (..)

“Some crazy white lady killed and beheaded this other white lady (…). The woman who got killed had her fourteen-month-old baby with her when she got killed. The baby made it out okay.”



Dead Women Crossing, also known as Dead Woman’s Crossing, is a small unincorporated community on Deer Creek near Weatherford in Custer County, Oklahoma. The community takes its name from the unsolved murder of a local woman.

On July 6, 1905, a schoolteacher named Katie DeWitt James filed for divorce. The next day, she carried her 14-month-old daughter Lulu Belle to a train station in Custer City. Her father became concerned after not hearing from her for weeks and hired a detective, who found the baby unharmed in the care of a family, who had been given the baby by Fannie Norton, who denied that she murdered James. Later the same day, Norton committed suicide by poison. On August 31, 1905, James’ remains were found near Deer Creek. Her head was severed from her body.

[30] My favorite scene of the book is on page 206. I’ll say no more.

[31] Reference:

He took you to the American Art Museum, where you discovered James Hampton. He was an artist, a Christian, a mystic, a janitor.



James Hampton (1909-1964) was an American outsider artist from Washington, D.C. who worked as a janitor but secretly built a large assemblage of religious art from scavenged materials known as the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly which is currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The art was not discovered until after Hampton’s death when the owner of the garage came to find out why the rent had not been paid. Hampton had kept the project secret from most of his friends and family.

Please look up pictures of this. It’s amazing.


Most addictions aren’t premeditated.


Part IV: Powwow

[33] Opens with a quote by Jean Genet (p.227).

Jean Genet (1910-1986) was a French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but he later took to writing. David Bowie’s song “The Jean Genie” is named for him.

[34] Reference:

A couple of the older guys make this low huh sound, then another couple of guys say aho in unison.


According to Wiktionary, in Navajo:

From Kiowa aho (“thank you”), and loaned to many other Native American languages during the 20th century because it was frequently heard at pow-wows and widely used in the Native American Church (NAC).

It can mean “yes, I agree” or “amen” (exclaimed during prayers).


“You don’t have to defend all white people you think aren’t a part of the problem just because I said something negative about white culture.”


[36] Reference:

She remembers what her mom told her and Opal about Alcatraz, how a small group of Indians first took over Alcatraz, just five or six of them, took it over as a piece of performance art five years before it really happened.



On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux demonstrated by occupying Alcatraz island for four hours. The entire party consisted of about 40 people, including photographers, reporters and a lawyer representing those claiming land stakes. According to Adam Fortunate Eagle, this demonstration was an extension of already prevalent Bay Area street theater used to raise awareness.

The Occupation of Alcatraz was an occupation of Alcatraz Island by 89 American Indians and supporters, led by Richard Oakes, LaNada Means, and others. They chose the name Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) and John Trudell was the spokesperson. According to the IOAT, under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Lakota, all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal land was returned to the Native people who once occupied it. Since Alcatraz penitentiary had been closed on March 21, 1963, and the island had been declared surplus federal property in 1964, a number of Red Power activists felt the island qualified for a reclamation.

The Alcatraz Occupation lasted for nineteen months, from November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971, and was forcibly ended by the U.S. government. Oakes was shot to death in 1972, and the American Indian Movement was later targeted by the federal government and the FBI in COINTELPRO operations.

I assume many will be assigned to read There There in class or have already sought it out from best-of lists. If it sounds interesting to you, go for it; if you’re on the fence, wait until Orange has another book out, then start with that. He has great potential (I cried twice while reading There There, connecting so strongly with the characters) and I suspect he’ll iron out some literary issues his second time out.

Orange sets up tantalizing threads (two half-siblings working together and having no idea of their shared parentage, a woman preparing to reconnect with her three sons, a woman sitting in a room with parents she’s never met, two characters taken to a hospital with life-threatening wounds) and refuses to give any resolution. Doing this with one of the set-ups can work – I’m fine with not knowing if the characters live or die – but revealing the family connections to the reader and never allowing the characters to realize it is frustrating. Orange didn’t have a climax here, he just found a quick way out, which is so disappointing after the strong first half.

Next week, I try a modern crime author on a whim with Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand.

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