Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi
Goliath (2022), by Tochi Onyebuchi, is the first 2022 book I’ve read and already I’m assuming it’s going to be on my Best of the Year list next December. That said, while I’m obviously strongly recommending it, thanks to its structure and style, it won’t be to everyone’s taste (What book is?), though I certainly hope everyone gives it a shot.
The novel is set in a near-future, post-pandemic, post-natural disaster, post-man-made disaster, post-apocalyptic Earth (New Haven in particular) that has been abandoned by those with the economic and racial privilege to take up residency in the Colonies — large orbital habitats free from the environmental devastation below, a planet poisoned by radiation and pollution and wracked by climate change. A planet where some (those somewhat less wealthy or privileged than the Colony people) live in homes or cities whose domes protect them from the atmosphere or have mechanical and cybernetic mods to strengthen their physical and mental capability, while those less well-off (and almost always less white) are left to fend for themselves, which usually means living hard-scrabble short lives.
Into this world, Onyebuchi introduces a host of characters, particularly focusing on a group of Black and Brown laborers whose mentor/leader is an old man named Bishop. The crew is rounded out by a number of younger workers, including Linc, Bugs, Mercedes, and Sydney. Two other main characters are Jonathan and David, a white, gay couple from the Colonies who have the romanticized idea of returning to Earth and beginning a new, more idealized life.
The narrative is not a thru-line but a mosaic of sharply drawn vignette or wonderfully voiced stories-within-stories that flash backwards and forwards in time, filling in backstories, fleshing out the created world, deepening our understanding of character and relationships, and highlighting repeating themes. Those who prefer their narratives more straightforward, moving from A to B to C with the rare overtly-dated flashback may struggle a bit. Same for those who prefer to glide through relatively easy-to-follow storylines (there’s probably some overlap in those two groups); Goliath is a book that mostly requires an attentive reader, though I suppose one could simply read the vignettes without trying to piece together where they fall in time and place and remain happily at sea until the end where things may become more obviously clear.
Personally, I absolutely loved it, the accretion of setting, plot, and character detail; the slow reveal of why people are as they are. More abstractly, I also appreciated the way the structure acts as a mirror, reflecting the fractured society we’re presented and the fractured “who knows what will happen today” existence of the characters — the way they must fight to build solid selves and relationships on the shifting sands of a racist/classist society that can evict them at any moment, kill them at any moment, that deprives them of basic needs such as air, water, shelter, work. Finally, the structure also creates an unstable foundation for the reader as well; why write a conventionally chronological story that eases a reader along a familiar path if one of the purposes of the story is to discomfit the reader?
As much as I liked the structural choice, even more than the non-linear organization, I reveled in the stories within stories, a true tour de force in voicing. The characters leap off the page in their own distinctive voices, dreams (and nightmares), actions and mannerisms, each feeling fully alive and real. Onyebuchi has a great ear for dialogue; the last author whose dialogue skill so struck me was Richard Price (writer for The Wire, author of Lush Life, amongst others), and Onyebuchi has that same ability to throw down richly diverse voices so real-sounding and immediate you’d swear they’re simply transcripts of mics hidden in subway cars or on street corners. A plot exists here, or maybe a situation, but this book is driven by its character and themes, and the way those intersect in a cascade of varying emotions.
As for those themes, they run a gamut of bitingly incisive commentary regarding gentrification, race, white flight, racism, classism, climate change, privilege, inequity, and increasing technological gap between groups, and more. The topicality is obvious, and though I labeled Goliath a “post-apocalyptic” novel in my intro, honestly that probably does a disservice to Onyebuchi’s work, as what I’d argue is presented here is less a “future” apocalypse/dystopia than an existent one. Dressed up maybe in slightly fantastical clothing, but really, all it takes is swapping out a word here, a phrase there, and you’re reading not a science fiction novel but literary realism. Or even out-and-out reportage. To highlight that point, the book is rife with references to easily recognizable events from our time (and sadly, fictional events that could just as easily be from now). If you read the following passages out of context, I defy anybody assuming they were from a speculative novel:
The officer said ‘good luck’ to Ace and turned away, the silent but ever watchful sheriff hovering like a pet bird over his shoulder.
“We ain’t dead,” Ace shouted … “You can’t talk to us like we dead. We right here! See this here? This still a family! Ain’t gonna break that!”
Gunshots at night and 911 phone calls still brought police; only, an hour might elapse between the fire and their arrival.
When you get out to the abandoned neighborhoods, to Newhallville, the places the upper-middle-class fled … The house façades are all gaunt, hollowed faces out from which occasional black figures leech, ants out of a bleached skull.
The only people who did not seem to be shocked by the riots were the residents of color in the city that burned around them.
That being said, I don’t want to shortchange Onyebuchi’s imaginative powers or originality; he has many wonderful touches of futurism here that make this world as different from our current one as it is similar. That sheriff in the quote above, for instance, is literally hovering, “a large metal sphere with arms like a spider, one sporing a small-caliber pistol. On its front, a display of a white man’s mustachioed face.”
Events, and I’m not going to detail them here (not to avoid plot spoilers but emotional ones), are wrenching, infuriating, depressing, and heart-breaking. Onyebuchi does not go easy on the reader. But one of the elements that makes this novel so great is that despite how bleak this world is, these characters who have every right to live lives of nothing but rage and bitterness and resentment and grief — perhaps that above all — feel those things, but don’t let themselves be controlled by them. Instead we also get to see, and often hear in their voicing, the joy they take not in “surviving” this world so set against them but in living in it. The way they laugh and tell stories of the dead and of near-death experiences, the way they cultivate (sometimes literally) joy, the way they do not just recognize or find beauty in the world, but claim it for themselves, if even for a little while. They do not set aside anger but set it beside.
As I said in the beginning, I’m sure that 360 or so days from now, when I’m adding my titles to our Best of the Year posting, this will be on it. Smartly structured, wonderfully voiced, highly original, powerfully emotive, and acidly incisive, Goliath is a stimulating work peopled with great characters and filled with dialogue crafted at a rare level of skill, all of it written with a fierce sense of energy and urgency. Highly recommended.