The novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.
But displaying these stories on the page is not an easy out. What’s ingenious about this book – a book about the Indian experience – is that it seems wary of capturing the Indian experience at all. Indians who “don’t look like what they look like”, “Indians dressed up as Indians”, the book sits in its own uncertainty: grabs at the truth and misses. Which is perhaps just what it means to do: gesture towards the notion that people cannot be captured. And that’s as powerful a manifesto as any.
There There itself is a kind of dance. Even in its tragic details, it is lyrical and playful, shaking and shimmering with energy. The novel dips into the tiniest personal details and sweeps across history. Orange, like Orvil, creates beauty out of tragedy. Yet the novel remains a warning about the desolation that results when you separate parents from their children and try to eradicate a people.
If There There is at times an angry and demanding book (keeping track of the characters’ relation to one another is a challenge in itself), it is also a humane one. Harvey, the bumptious MC of the powwow, and Jacquie bring to the novel a strong element of compassion...The relationship between them, fractious, gruff and eventually giving way to hard-won mutual understanding, is affecting and surprising, and comes to represent Orange’s philosophy that, even amid confusion and violence, there is the possibility for decency to assert itself.
It is this optimism, rather than the nihilism of Tony Loneman, that lingers after finishing the book. Fragile and flawed though this hope might be, it remains moving and powerful, just like the rest of Orange’s impressive achievement.