“The State”
by Tommy Orange
from the March 26, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Heads up for a debut author in this week’s magazine. Tommy Orange’s first book, a novel entitled There There, comes out in June. I’d never heard of him until The New Yorker tweeted that his story would be appearing this week. His author biography on Penguin Random House’s site says he is an “enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma” and he is a recent MFA grad from the Institute of American Indian Arts. In a BuzzFeed article Orange is paired with Terese Marie Mailhot as writers “launching a new wave of Native American literature” (here). This is a good article that goes deeply into each author’s approach to their current trajectory. It also notes that early reviews of There There bring up similarities to Erdrich’s style, so that got my attention.

It should be noted that “The State” is an excerpt from There There, but I’m okay this time since I do genuinely want to see just what we might be getting here. This looks promising. In his interview with Deborah Treisman (here), he lists writers he returns to again and again: Borges, Kafka, Robert Walser, John Kennedy Toole, Sylvia Plath, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño, Louise Erdrich, Álvaro Mutis, Felisberto Hernández, and Andrey Platonov. If nothing else, I’d like Orange to be a reading buddy.

Please start and join in the conversation below. How did you like “The State”? Are you interested in There There?

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By |2018-03-19T11:57:34-04:00March 19th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tommy Orange|Tags: |6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. David March 19, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    Trevor, I’m of two minds here. I have decided to skip excerpts generally, but I am curious about the book, so I might read it. I do think that it probably might not merit the sort of discussion a story does. Maybe if a lot of people here love it I might give it a try. Or I might wait for the book to be published and check out his work then.
    .
    I’m wondering if The New Yorker pays less for excerpts from upcoming books, since they really are just a promotion for book sales. It would explain why they so often (too often) publish them.

  2. Eric March 23, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Well, this guy certainly had good timing. Now that Sherman Alexie has morphed, seemingly overnight, into the Lord Voldemort of the Native literature world, there seems to be a big movement to “open the door to the next generation of Indian writers”, right when Tommy Orange was standing on the front step. Orange is just the kind of writer, and probably person, I would expect to be promoted in the wake of the Alexie flameout: dogged, earnest, responsible, respectful, a hard worker and a good listener. And I have to say that this works better than most New Yorker novel excerpts, because Orange has apparently worked hard to write a story that has its own dramatic arc independent of the novel it comes from, with a real beginning and ending. The subject matter, though not the prose style, reminds me quite a lot of Alexie: the angst of the urbanized Indian, the conflicted loyalties between the conquered people and the conqueror, the dysfunctional alcoholic families.

    Orange himself keeps his narrative distance, though, and to me the result at times read more like an anthropological report about dysfunctionality than a story, even with the second-person narration. It checks off many of the “good story” boxes without totally coming to life, except in fits and starts. I don’t regret reading the story, and if he gets another story published I’ll probably read that too, but I think I’ll pass on the novel.

  3. David March 23, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    Well, I read the author interview and Orange sounds like an interesting guy. But when he listed his early influences as “Borges, Kafka, Robert Walser, Clarice Lispector, and, eventually, John Kennedy Toole and Sylvia Plath” I decided I should give the excerpt a read. I also was curious how the second person narration would work. For me, the gold standard of second person narration is the start of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s nigh a traveler because he is actually addressing the reader and describing what you are doing. I did not expect that level of writing, but was still curious.
    .
    I really loved the first four narrative paragraphs, and especially the opening one. There is a beautiful style to them that helps him to describe what might be just an ordinary pregnancy as one of great cosmic import. As the story develops further, the use of the second person has diminishing returns and it becomes a more ordinary tale. I think Eric and I had similar experiences on this story; what he calls “an anthropological report” came across to me more like it was an outline of a character he planned to write a novel about rather than a fully developed story on its own. Like Eric, I’d be curious to read more of his work, but probably not the novel.
    .
    One final note: I was surprised the extent to which Orange seemed to employ what, had this story been written by a white author, would feel like stereotypes. Thomas is an alcoholic who works as a janitor and gets fired from his job for being drunk at work. In fact, for all of what Orange says about wanting to depict the urban life of Indians, change the powwow to some non-Indian type of gathering and make Thomas a white character and the story pretty much would not have to change anything else to work. So I don;t see what Orange is really showing us about the urban Indian experience beyond invoking a couple of stereotypes. I wish in the interview he had been asked at least if he was concerned about making his main character an alcoholic who gets fired for being drunk on the job.

  4. Ken March 27, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    I must agree with the two comments above BUT I was so engaged by the style here that the story worked wonderfully while I was reading it. Now that it’s done, I’d agree that it is somewhat familiar stuff. It also truly does work as a short story unlike many of The New Yorker’s excerpts.

  5. Greg March 31, 2018 at 5:45 pm

    I agree overall with David, Eric and Ken. Thank you for commenting!

    And the following was my favourite piece of writing from the story:

    “You want to cry and you feel as if you might, but know that you can’t, that you shouldn’t. Crying ruins you. You gave it up long ago.”

  6. Madwomanintheattic March 3, 2019 at 9:35 am

    I am never concerned about whether a story is part of a novel; for me the criterion is how a story ‘means’ or works. This story of redemption seems to me especially beautifully constructed, a tapestry of many strands woven by a master weaver. It is almost onomatopoetic in its song-like opening, and although it deals with the kinds of stereotypical Native America negatives (alcoholism, rootlessness) David mentions, it creates a sympathetic backstory for Thomas’s struggles with both; in part through the rare and successful second-person narration that creates an intimacy and immediacy. The narrative seems to me to move in three ways: it tells of the past both in broad historical context and in specific incidents from Thomas’s life; it tells of the present in the “encapsulated” or real-time story of the bat-killing and Thomas’s journey to the powwow; and it tells of a mystical/spiritual time-out of-time that is the State through its invocation both of the power of drumming and the references to James Hampton’s vision. It is this last strand that is both complex and redemptive, and that lifts the story especially high.

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