Books about communities seldom portrayed in media have an undeniable cultural value aside from their literary value. This book, about a large number of Native American characters living in contemporary Oakland, California, clearly has a lot of cultural value for readers whose vague notions of Native Americans encompassed no more than reservations, feather headdresses and a sense that these folks aren’t really around anymore. I suspect the book will also be valuable to a lot of Native American readers, particularly in its portrayal of native characters struggling with issues of identity: what does it mean to be native if you don’t know much about your heritage, if you’re mixed race, if you learn powwow dancing by watching videos on YouTube?
That said, I am not in either of these groups, and on a literary level I was disappointed. Like a lot of first novels by MFAs, this book bites off more than it can chew, experimenting with literary techniques but distancing the reader from the characters. It follows 12 point-of-view characters – eight men, three women and a boy – in a novel that due to short chapters is even shorter than its 290 pages would have you believe; and each POV character comes with their own supporting cast of friends and family. Seven of these characters have chapters told in the first person, despite the fact that every character’s voice sounds alike. (They always do, and yet first-time novelists persist in doing this.) One obnoxious 17-page chapter is even told in the second person. (“You went back every Tuesday for the next year. Keeping time wasn’t hard for you. The hard part was singing. You’d never been a talker. You’d certainly never sung before. Not even alone. But Bobby made you do it.”)
Unfortunately, so little time with each person means that everyone is a bit-part character. We barely get to know any of them as people, and their surroundings feel oddly blank as well, with descriptions of place mostly limited to Oakland street names. It’s definitely urban grit lit: the emotional arc of one chapter is traced through the character’s constipation and ultimate pants-pooping, while another character pulls spider legs out of a bump in his leg . . . and although we spend too little time with any individual to see much more than a snapshot of their lives and histories leading up to a powwow, it’s clear from the beginning that it will culminate in a mass shooting. When it comes, we don’t even learn the fates of all the characters before the book ends.
The book is crammed full of issues – alcoholism, missing parents, urban violence, domestic violence, interracial adoption, more alcoholism – which is fine, but at the point that the author addresses the reader directly about Native American history in both a prologue and an interlude, and a character in the middle of fleeing her abusive husband gets a random lecture from her friend about the issue of native women going missing in large numbers, I had the image of the author with a bullhorn going, “Do I have your attention? Excellent! Let me tell you ALL THE THINGS!”
That said, I do think author shows a lot of promise. The characterization is decent given the fact that the book barely gives any of the characters room to breathe. The writing is fine – it’s not always as staccato as the brief excerpt above, though still too distinctive to plausibly attribute to a large number of characters of different ages and backgrounds. Many first-time authors attempt and then get past the multiple-narrators thing, and Orange’s second book will probably be much less frantic in its issue-inclusion just because he packed so much into this one. I will be curious to learn more about the next book, but on its literary merits I wouldn’t recommend this one.