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Near the beginning of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath, the young soon-to-be-lovers David and Jonathan meet in a smokers’ lounge in the Colony: an earth-orbiting space-community inhabited by everyone with sufficient means to settle there. They are both white, both well-off enough to have been able to undergo “cyberization,” which replaces fallible internal organs with augmented versions that reduce the impact on the body of carcinogens and other environmental hazards. This is to say, even smoking—as harmful as it is—has become a kind of one-dimensional gesticulation toward danger in the cybernetic world David and Jonathan inhabit. But money, and the way that it determines the architecture of their world and experience, is still a real and infuriating presence.

They smoked for a while in silence.

“You know, they only put us here to give us an unobstructed view of the Ring.”

“The Ring?”

Dying atomizer between his index and middle finger, [Jonathan] pointed at a floating band far in the distance. It flowed horizontally until the walls blocked their view. “It’s all junk out there. Trash. Shit we throw out. I mean, it has to go somewhere, right?” He shrugged. “The people in The Viewer, they don’t have to see all that stuff. All they see are the nebulae and the zodiac signs. Diana, the silver-footed queen, and all that. Get to stare out there and contemplate their existence.” He chuckled, and there was bitterness in it. “Us? We get to look at what we all shit out.” (p. 31)

In a single paragraph, Onyebuchi indicates everything his novel is not concerned with. It’s not concerned with the people in “The Viewer.” It will not be about the ineffable, the heavenly, or those who have deployed wealth and power in such a way that they can spend their time contemplating a pleasing view of (while perhaps feeling kinship with) the heavenly and the ineffable. It is not about the aristocrats in the manor. But neither, in the end, is Goliath about the discontented white queer middle-class lovers, David and Jonathan, who choose to leave the Colony in hope of a better, more ‘authentic’ life. They will return to Earth, there to secure their own attempted Paradise: which, as it happens, was already inhabited before their arrival.

No, David and Jonathan are not the main characters of this novel. That place is reserved for Goliath. So, who is Goliath? Well, the Biblical warrior-giant Goliath, a Philistine, first inspires fear and then is felled. He is the be-monstered representative of a culture, and race, regarded oppositionally by the Israelite culture, and race, which produced the text within which his story is told. Also, Goliath is someone whose death promises to make his killer prosperous. 1 Samuel 17:25 (KJV), “And the men of Israel said, Have ye seen this man [Goliath] that is come up? Surely to defy Israel is he come up: and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father’s house free in Israel.” In the Bible, the future King David’s power and wealth is conceptually founded on the death of the Philistine warrior, the “man of the in-between spaces,” Goliath. [1]

I think what Onyebuchi does (I’m hesitant to use absolutes here, as the book is subtly executed, and any summary is going to leave things out) is more or less to transfer Goliath’s Biblical identity as an impressive but vulnerable Othered object of fear for the Israelites, to a socially and occupationally affiliated group of Black ‘stackers’ working in the toxic urban dereliction of New Haven, Connecticut, circa 2050. Onyebuchi’s David and Jonathan – whose names chime with the Book of Samuel too—will interact with the ‘Philistine’ stackers in different ways as the novel progresses. The final effect of these interactions will track with the Biblical Goliath’s fate, as well as the Biblical surmise that David’s reward for violence will be “great riches.” In Onyebuchi’s future New Haven, we can understand these riches to consist of a renovated house in a newly appraisal-friendly neighborhood, now surveilled by remote police-presence, and protected by an atmosphere-purifying Dome. Yes, white gentrifiers, this book is looking at you.

Soon after the novel opens, we are introduced to the work of the stackers. They survive by salvaging brick from abandoned and demolished New Haven single-family houses and bringing loads of the material to transfer stations for off-world shipment to the Colony. Onyebuchi gives us a remote and anonymized look at their labor through the words of Allison, a young white reporter who has come to New Haven to send bulletins back to curious readers in the Colony about life planet-side:

… [from] the bus … you witness a small bit of industry.

With bandanas over their faces, many of them in overalls and boots, [the stackers] sweep and strike at the rubble. And you squint and you see bricks rising like walls around them, as though each of them is building a corner of a house. A couple of them pause, straighten, stare as you ride by … and they prop themselves on their hammers, the ones you watch. (p. 90)

Remember the hammers, they’re important.

Allison may or may not be seeing the individuals we later get to know in their own words. The group Onyebuchi introduces us to consists loosely of its charismatic elderly leader, Bishop; Jayceon, “one of the youths … his hammer draped across his chest, his head propped against the rickety back of [Bishop’s] flatbed” (p. 23); Linc, a young man who bears the brunt of Goliath’s tragic symbolism; and Linc’s lover Sydney, who has fled to the eastern seaboard following family tragedy in the southwest. Also included are Bugs, a young boy who’s been semi-adopted by Bishop; the war-veteran Rodney; Mercedes; Kendrick; Sydney’s friend Timeica, and her older brother Wyatt.

The stackers’ membership in an economic underclass is confirmed by the fact that they perform manual labor in toxic, unfiltered air.  A grim and believable detail in Goliath is that they’re irregular about attempting to protect themselves from omnipresent biohazards—out of fatigue maybe, and/or the belief that either luck or nothing will save them. When approaching a fresh demolition site that smells of “chalk and plaster and asbestos … [a] couple of the men had once-white hospital masks tucked over their noses and mouths. A few pulled up their bandannas; so did some of the women and other on-siters who came in off the street” (p. 35). It’s not much, counterpoised against a freshly-mixed airborne cocktail of contaminants from the destroyed building, to say nothing of lingering radiation from nuclear conflicts earlier in the century.  When white visitors like Allison, Jonathan and David arrive on Earth, they often wear oxygen masks and benefit at a baseline level from transplanted, augmented lungs. The Black stackers, by contrast, routinely lose friends and acquaintances to lung cancer, to such a degree that it’s barely commented on when it occurs. One of the shared griefs of the affiliation-group gathered around Bishop is that, the better the stackers come to know one another, the more they become aware of the unwavering flow of early mortality they stand shoulder-deep in. Even as they interact with glorious particularity, they are also (and come to know themselves as) “precious things falling apart” (p. 46). It’s perhaps obvious, but nonetheless worth saying out loud, that this set of conditions isn’t being made up by Onyebuchi out of anything like whole cloth. In Goliath, he’s created an intensified future analogue of present life in places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, which drew censure from the UN for environmental racism in 2021. It’s also an intensified future analogue of present life in places like … New Haven.

Onyebuchi is careful to show us the stackers’ suffering didn’t have be so acute. In his 2050, wherever money and the motivation for its outlay come together, Domes can be installed to render the air safe. The Dome, a scalable bespoke technology that produces purified air and protects against radiation within a set circumference, is to me as remarkable and believable and narratively useful an invention as Ursula K. Le Guin’s ansible. Of course we would invent this; aren’t we already doing so, sort of, with our high-powered expensive air-purifiers and HEPA filters, humming away each at their own designated plot of square-footage, in COVID-conscious homes and offices with the spare income to afford them? If we did it on a larger scale, a so-called civic scale, wouldn’t we have detailed, impressive-sounding conversations about “areas of historical importance” and “special interest” and “economic significance” that would (at time of present writing) usually lead to Domes being installed where capital already resided, rather than in areas and with people who had for some reason—hard to say why, surely nothing structural—not often benefited from its presence, its mysterious accrual? I stopped for a long minute on the page where Jonathan, recently arrived in New Haven on the search for a house to purchase and renovate for himself and David, climbs by night to an overlook with his real-estate scout Eamonn, and surveys the half-skeletal remains of the city’s downtown.

… they took to identifying the lesser artifacts dotting the city: the cathedrals, the schools, the gated courtyards of Yale’s residential colleges. The Ivy Quarter’s Gothic architecture, choked with massive vines that wound their way through windows and around walls, made the place feel all the more haunted … That area of town still glowed blue under the protective Dome of a radiation field. A gauzy, beryl frontier fantasy so close as to be touched. (p. 43)

Is there anything more plausible, than to think Yale University would be among the first rich private American institutions to install a fundamentally inequitable, territory-delineating super-HEPA radiation-shield?

So these are the stakes. By the time David and Jonathan and their peers lose their taste for the Colony and decide to come back to Earth to re-create an American “frontier fantasy,” Bishop and many of his stackers have lived in New Haven through the city’s worst years and are just beginning to see the possibility of improvement in the day-to-day of their own lives. (Fair warning: there’s a heartbreaking subplot on this subject, related to wild horses.) The stackers have often arrived fleeing more dangerous conditions elsewhere. New Haven and its angle of Connecticut are a point of relative geopolitical stability, hence the city’s attractiveness to refugees and private developers alike. Insofar as we get a glimpse of the North American continent, it seems by c. 2050 to be a patchwork of contested territories divided up during a complex, environmentally-catalyzed race-war. We learn more about the war, and its generational traumas as they relate to the stackers, via flashback and interpolated narrative as the novel progresses. And this is where I do need to say: reading Goliath is confusing, disorienting, challenging. You are unlikely to enjoy it if you dislike narrative difficulty. The novel is partly a created fictional archive, a set of fragmented historical records both written and recorded, which interact in constellated rather than linear fashion with the dramatic plotline of gathering structural conflict between David, Jonathan and the stackers; between Israelite and Philistine; white and Black; gentrifier and original, hard-fighting resident. If you’re okay with being repeatedly thrown into the middle of things and puzzling your way through, though, this might very well be the most interesting, urgent novel you read for a long time. Goliath’s anger is apparent, as well as its learning, its mourning, its love.

There’s another implicit conflict or contest in the novel too, which brings us back to the hammers. Every regular stacker needs one and carries it constantly. Onyebuchi is precise and unsparing about the consequences of having a hammer that isn’t well suited to your frame. Working on a site, Linc notices: “A couple stackers had shorter handles on their hammers and had to stoop further than was healthy, hands that much closer to the wires, nails, broken piping, panes of glass” (p. 36). They are an occupational tool which properly sized can help preserve your body, and improperly sized can contribute to its risk and its wounding. They are also of course a weapon. As the stackers, particularly Linc, begin to suffer from the increasing territorial and surveillance-encroachments of white gentrification, its triggering of automatic police presence and consequent police brutality, this role comes to the fore. But probably the most important work of the stackers’ hammers, in the novel, is to affiliate the stackers’ Goliathan at-risk stature, their impressive presence and implicit likelihood of being felled by smaller individuals, with John Henry: the Black American folk-hero who represents both an account of heroic accomplishment in the face of impossible odds, and a warning—or simply an act of mourning—that memorializes the lethal outcome of conflict with a force, or machine, far stronger than even the strongest individual person. As to what Tochi Onyebuchi thinks that composite killing machine might be, in the New Haven of Goliath, I leave it to you to consider. The tracks are there to be found, for anyone willing to look.

Endnotes

[1] Wait, “man of the in-between,” what. I learned about the phrase from Azzan Yadin’s 2004 article “Goliath’s Armor and Israelite Collective Memory,” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 54(3), pp. 373-395, which you can, for who knows how much longer, access here. Yadin argues that the type of single combat depicted in 1 Samuel 17 is essentially Homeric, being as it is a “contest of champions … a form of battle known almost exclusively from the Greek epic tradition” (Yadin, p. 379). He identifies a Greek calque, or borrowing, in the Hebrew of 1 Samuel 17:4, which the KJV renders thus: “And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.”

This is where I asked for help. Sonya Taaffe kindly reviewed and transliterated: all of the linguistic information below is from her. The word rendered as “champion” in the KJV is more literally איש הביניים (the man of the in-between). Transliterated, this is ish habenayim. In his article, Yadin suggests that the Hebrew phrase has been borrowed, pulled across language-lines, from the Greek μεταίχμιον (the space between two armies): metaíchmion or metaíkhmion.

Why does any of this matter for a book-review, even if it’s very cool? (It is very cool and I am very grateful to Sonya for giving my question her attention.) I think it matters because it establishes the Biblical Goliath’s association with temporarily demilitarized areas between army-fronts, within which high-stakes mortal combat will occur. And that association fits the work of Onyebuchi’s book, and of his stackers, whose derelict New Haven has been comparatively (not entirely) free of remote police-presence; who have made a life in “the in-between,” and will now be forced to stake their lives on it. [return]



Catherine Rockwood learned to read early, and improperly. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Contrary Magazine, Reckoning Magazine, The Ethel Zine, SWWIM, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter at @martin65.
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26 Sep 2022

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