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Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good

Orange uses the word “Indianing” as though it were a choice, and something you have to be grown up to do, “like drinking or driving or smoking or voting.” His character Orvil Red Feather discovers the word “pretendian” online, and later invokes the idea of “Indians dressed up as Indians.”

Orvil looks in the bedroom mirror “with his regalia on all wrong. It isn’t backward, and actually he didn’t know what he did wrong, but it’s off. He moves in front of the mirror and his feathers shake. He catches the hesitation, the worry in his eyes, there in the mirror.” He knows that the woman who cares for him would disapprove if she saw him. He is deeply unsure of himself: “He’s waiting for something true to appear before him — about him. It’s important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian.”

This idea of inauthenticity adds to the delicate drama of the book, makes Orvil’s sense that he is “part of something” all the more poignant and credible, all the more dramatic and engaging.

No one in the novel is fully sure how to look or act, how to live or be. It is as though Orange has taken Orvil’s broken, shadowy heritage and made it not only persistent and pressing, but also offers it as a way of enriching Orvil as a character, someone more fully present and “there” because of the very battle going on in his being between absences and a shivering trace of something that comes sharply from the past.

Orvil, like most of the characters here, is what Orange calls in an interlude “a present-tense” person. And in this present tense, no one is pure. One of the characters ponders on the mixture of conquered and conquering in his own actual body: “You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”

Within the cacophony of voices in this book and the many short chapters each told from the perspective of one of the characters, the structure is not only dictated by the sense of identity these characters share, but by the fact that many of them will meet at a great powwow to be held in Oakland. Thus they are all, as in Chaucer, pilgrims on their way to a shrine, or, as in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” an extended family crossing the landscape.

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