When I rise in the early hours, I love to look out the window on my way downstairs. It’s quiet out there. Dark. Unlike a sunshine shadow, a streetlight shadow carries an air of mystery and force, as if it might unhitch itself from its creator (in this case a bent maple branch) and walk off — probably to work mischief somewhere.
Last night sleeplessness might’ve been caused by an unshakeable sense of unease about not going up to Salem this weekend (a feeling my sister graciously dispelled this morning). Or, it might’ve been the bombshell NYTimes reporting late yesterday about our president being under surveillance as a national security risk (which sounds like the same old same old but certainly isn’t).
But mostly, it’s this body I inhabit, this time of life. Sleep just doesn’t come sometimes.
After reading twitter and watching Maddow, I finished reading this debut novel in the wee hours. Tommy Orange graduated from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.
One of the characters tells us early on that Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland, the novel’s setting, and upon her return after being away for many years, said (in her inimitable style): “There is no there there.”
When those words are quoted by a white gentrifier in passing to one of the Native characters (who is both Indian and native to Oakland), it takes on the weight of history. “There is no there there” could be the catch phrase for genocide. The Oakland Native character is well read enough to know, too, that Stein used the phrase to describe change and not really to say something about the place itself and so the remark is both insulting and ignorant. That gives you a feel for the book’s themes and occupations.
The novel is haunting, sad (really sad), and at times funny. Family is central. There are parents who vanish and parents who are doing the best they can but falling far short of the mark. There are the lingering scars of a devastating history. In one review, Orange said, “We are the memories we don’t remember.”* The book’s main and final event, a first-time powwow in Oakland, provides a canvas to explore a range of relationships to Indian culture — from celebratory to ambivalent to predatory.
There were a lot of characters to keep track of, so this novel would benefit from a second read. By the time of the denouement, I had trouble remembering who everyone was which makes me think this story would make a better movie than novel.
But it’s a good novel.
* NYTimes review by Colm Toibin.