These three new works of fiction have captivated me recently, and their talented authors will be featured at this year’s Texas Book Festival, Oct. 27 and 28, held in and around the Texas State Capitol.
“There There,” Tommy Orange
At the festival: “Just the Beginning: Terese Marie Mailhot and Tommy Orange,” 1:30 p.m. Oct. 27, Capitol Extension Room E2.0
It is rare to find a book that’s like nothing you’ve ever read before, but “There There” by Tommy Orange is one. Orange’s debut novel focuses on a disparate community of Native Americans and is mostly centered around modern-day Oakland, California. A sense of shared identity binds this crackling, polyphonic novel together. Orange writes with deep empathy from the point of view of 12 different narrators, and through unpacking their lives and struggles, illuminates a crippling undercurrent of intergenerational trauma that has led to the cycles of poverty and addiction that many of them face.
The setting of Oakland makes “There There” particularly revelatory. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, Orange was born and raised in Oakland. The title of his novel nods to the reflections of another writer who also grew up in Oakland: “There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein wrote in “Everybody’s Biography,” published in 1937, reflecting on visiting the site of her childhood home and the ways in which it had changed.
The propulsive narrative of “There There” converges toward a big powwow set to take place in Oakland, where dancers will compete for large cash prizes. Each of the characters has their own motivations for going — from a young man hoping to connect with the father he’s never met to the woman struggling with whether or not to reconnect with the family she abandoned to those who are drawn to the lucrative spectacle for more nefarious purposes.
Thanks to Orange’s skill for drawing out the tribulations that have shaped these characters, readers will sympathize even with those who have dubious intentions, as well as with his many other complex and profound characters.
“An American Marriage,” Tayari Jones
At the festival: Tayari Jones and Luis Alberto Urrea in Conversation, 3 p.m. Oct. 28, Kirkus Reviews Tent
“An American Marriage” the latest novel by Tayari Jones, is a heartbreaking exploration of how racial profiling and wrongful incarceration wreck havoc on the marriage on a young black couple in the modern American South.
It is a also formally fascinating book. The novel begins by moving between the first-person perspectives of a husband and wife whose nascent marriage is tested when the former is accused, while the two are staying together at a hotel, of raping another guest, an older white woman, a crime for which he is swiftly tried and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
I assumed that from here the novel would unfold in close-up over those twelve years, but instead that bleak period in the couple’s life is narrated in epistolary form as Roy and Celestial write letters to each other during his incarceration. It’s a satisfyingly appropriate choice for charting what happens to these characters and their love over the next few years. Their letters allow us into their inner lives, while also tracking the gaps in their communication, and the times when they try and fail to reach each other.
Another easy narrative choice might have been to end the story with Roy’s eventual homecoming, but for Jones this crossroads provides rich fodder for imaginative speculation. What follows, as we return to the alternating perspectives of Roy and Celestial and now another character whose fate is intertwined with theirs, is surprising and complicated. Jones does not make easy business of the destruction wrought by Roy’s unjust incarceration and the web of impact this has on the people in his life
“Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
At the festival: “Cutting Across the Edge: Short Fiction With An Edge,” 1:30 p.m. Oct. 27, Capital Extension Room 2.012
The surreal stories in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection “Friday Black” take us into dystopias that disturbingly amplify the dysfunction of modern life.
In the story that opens the collection, “The Finkelstein 5,” race warfare breaks out after a white man is exonerated for the beheading of five black children because they were loitering outside of a library and therefore the defendant perceived them as a threat to him and his kids.
In the story “Zimmer Land,” people of color are hired to play targets at a macabre amusement park where patrons pay for an opportunity to experience “interactive justice engagement.” “The majority of patrons are revisitors who just want to kill me over and over again,” explains the story’s narrator. And then at the end of the story: “I don’t know the man’s name, but he’s come to shoot me so many times it’s almost like we’re family.”
The stories in “Friday Black” are dark and absurd and violent and often brutally funny. The title story takes place on Black Friday and explores the sickness of consumerism. Told from the perspective of a top salesman, who appears again later in another of the collection’s stories, he is unemotional when reporting on the deaths that occur as a result of shoppers’ competitive, rabid quest for goods: “Last year, the Friday Black took 129 people.”
Adjei-Brenyah sinks us into the tilted worlds of his stories through the economy and confidence of his language. His stories take us to wild, frightening places, exploring the depths of what it looks and feels like to be dehumanized.