There There

There There

by

Tommy Orange

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Summary
Analysis
Edwin Black sits on the toilet in his mother’s house, struggling with his sixth day of constipation as he laments his years-long addiction to the internet and social media. His computer is fried, and being forced to step away from the internet is making him look at how he’s wasting his life. He has a master’s degree in comparative literature with a focus on Native American literature, but since graduating he’s done nothing with his life—he’s moved back into his childhood bedroom in his mother’s house, gained over a hundred pounds, and hidden himself away from the world.
Edwin’s physical constipation is a metaphor for the ways in which he’s constrained and uncomfortable on a larger scale. Having abandoned a promising academic career and become a veritable recluse, Edwin is cut off from the rest of the world and stuck in the mire of his own inertia.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Edwin gets off the toilet and returns to his bedroom, where he is excited to see that his computer has flickered to life. He’s still worried about being constipated, but knows he’s caused the condition himself by eating such terrible food. Edwin has been holing up in his room eating junk and being fearful of using the bathroom at certain times because his mother, Karen, has moved her Lakota boyfriend, Bill, into the house. As Edwin begins googling constipation and gets lost in a series of forums on the subject, he considers how quickly time goes by when one is looking at the internet, which he believes is a mechanism “like a brain trying to figure out a brain.”
Edwin’s obsession with the internet stems from the fact of its endlessness—he is riveted by all the information and stories it holds, and can’t accept that the internet is not a substitute for real life. Edwin is afraid of connection with other people, and is so loath to interact with his mother’s boyfriend that he’s letting his own health slide as a result.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Edwin hears a ping from his computer, which he knows means a message has been sent to his mother’s Facebook account, which he’s been using to try and find his biological father. His mother has told him little about his dad except for the fact that his name is Harvey, he lives in Phoenix, and he is what she—a white woman—calls “Native American Indian.” Edwin resents his mother for using “this weird politically correct catchall,” and for making Edwin himself feel removed from the Native community. Edwin has secured permission from his mother to message several different Harveys from her profile—and now one has responded.
Though Edwin is half-Native, his mother’s ignorance—and his own isolation—are preventing him from connecting more deeply with the cultural heritage he’s a part of. Edwin resents this fact and longs to make a change, but whether he’ll be able to overcome his own fears remains to be seen.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Interconnectedness, Coincidence, and Chance Theme Icon
Generational Trauma Theme Icon
Edwin reads the message from Harvey, which states that he’s coming to Oakland for the Big Oakland Powwow in a couple of months—he’ll be the emcee. Edwin writes back to Harvey, revealing who he is and apologizing for using the false premise of his mother’s account to contact him. The two men chat back and forth for a while, and Harvey demands to see a picture of Edwin to confirm their resemblance. Edwin takes a quick selfie and forwards it to Harvey, who admits they look a lot alike. Edwin asks what tribe Harvey belongs to, and Harvey replies that he is Cheyenne. Edwin quickly thanks Harvey and signs off, feeling overwhelmed.
It seems that Edwin has at last found his father, and a piece of his cultural backstory to boot—but the interaction and the new information overwhelm him, and he retreats again into his loneliness and isolation.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Interconnectedness, Coincidence, and Chance Theme Icon
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Edwin considers how long he’s been waiting to learn about his own Native heritage, searching for clues in his work as a Native American studies major and looking for a feeling of familiarity as he studied various tribes. Now, knowing what tribe he belongs to, Edwin still feels “not Native enough.”
Orange is drawing connections between his characters in spite of their vastly different experiences. Edwin is connected to Dene by their shared connection to storytelling as well as their shared feeling of somehow being insufficiently or incorrectly Native.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Interconnectedness, Coincidence, and Chance Theme Icon
When Karen comes home from work, she calls Edwin into the living room for a talk. Edwin complains, but his mother reminds him that they agreed on “updates” about Edwin’s job search—and what he plans to do about losing some weight. Edwin spirals out of control, ranting about how badly he feels about his weight all the time. Edwin pours himself a glass of water and takes an apple from a basket in the kitchen, telling his mother this is his “update.” Edwin expresses how frustrated he is with the job search, but his mother remains optimistic, suggesting different kinds of positions Edwin could apply for. She asks him how his writing is going, but Edwin feels patronized. Edwin’s mother tells him that there’s a paid internship position at the Indian Center he should apply for, and he halfheartedly says that he’ll look into it.
Karen is trying to look out for Edwin and inspire her son to recommit to living his actual life—but Edwin is so ashamed of how far he’s let himself fall already that any outside help feels like an attack. He is totally lost, untethered from his personal identity and his cultural identity alike, and needs help finding his way back to both.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Back in his room, Edwin listens to music on his headphones and lies down on the floor to do some exercises. He has difficulty doing push-ups and sit-ups, and quickly begins feeling sorry for himself. As motivation, he tries to tell himself that as a Cheyenne Indian he is a “warrior,” but when he realizes how “corny” he’s being, he gets angry and uses that as fuel to do some sit-ups. As he completes a set, he feels himself defecate in his pants involuntarily. He lies back down on the floor and says "Thank you" out loud.
Edwin’s involuntary defecation symbolically suggests that he’s moved past the emotional blockage that was holding him back. Having reconnected with his father and had a frank conversation with his mother, Edwin is ready at last to move on, test the waters of the real world, and reconnect with the truth of who he is.
Themes
Cultural Identity vs. Personal Identity Theme Icon
Generational Trauma Theme Icon