Back in 2020, Jesus, yeah, two years ago, I read a little novella by the name of Riot Baby. Tochi Onyebuchi’s novella hit very close to home considering the events of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd. It was one of my instant favorites, and I still feel the righteous anger that poured out of that book. So I knew I had to keep an eye out for Onyebuchi’s first adult novel. Goliath, is a towering look at a dismal future that is filled with a few small bright moments of people living in the world they were left behind in.
Goliath is more a future history meshed with the fever dream of swirling vignettes surrounding the community of New Haven, Connecticut in the decade of the 2050s than it is an easily distilled narrative. The United States is an irradiated land with pockets of civilization contained to once-great urban centers. Most white Americans, especially those with the means to do so, have moved off planet to inhabit “the colonies.” The people left behind in New Haven are for the most part black and/or Puerto Rican. They cobble together their lives, making communities within the salvage and wreckage of the buildings left behind. Sometimes they even tear down housing to send the materials into space where it will be used to create more room in the colonies. And now, some of those in the colonies are looking back at Earth in the hopes of a new start, moving their lives into the neighborhoods previous generations left behind.
I’m no stranger to challenging reads, so believe me when I say this, Goliath is a task of a novel. Not only in terms of the subject material Onyebuchi tackles, but also in the way he writes it. It is not light, despite the myriad jokes, and it’s not easy to take in despite its relevance to current events. Onyebuchi makes the reader slow down, and work through the story by employing a non-linear structure (for the most part), and barely hints at who is currently the protagonist. It’s both exciting and daunting as there is very little breathing room.
Luckily, Onyebuchi’s writing continues to astound me. His grasp of dialogue, especially when it comes to how people tell the insane stories that make up their lives, is near unparalleled. The interruptions people make with side comments, the questions that propel the narrative, the emotional reactions of the listeners that all serve to speed up or slow down one’s storytelling are pitch perfect. Onyebuchi makes you feel like you’re listening in to their lives while they’re out building a house, or taking one down. They aren’t just there to fill space, either. They impart an importance in their mundanity. Interspersed between these long winded stories are short sentences detailing the actions that are being carried out, whether it’s the hammering of a 2×4 or the digging out of bricks from the rubble. Onyebuchi highlights that what builds a community, especially in a place so desolate and left behind, isn’t the structure itself, but the people who live, dream, and build it.
This is juxtaposed against the story of Anthony as he attempts to build a new life for himself on Earth after leaving the colonies. He’s come alone and hopes to secure a home for him and his boyfriend who is left in the colonies for weeks while Anthony sorts out their future. It’s lonely, it’s focused on the materials of the home, whether electricity will be accessible and his demons start to saturate the home before David even gets there. It’s a wonderful dichotomy that just screams from Goliath the further in one reads.
I think I had only one negative experience with this book, and that’s at about the halfway point (at least in the ARC), the narrative completely switches perspectives. I had grown used to the cadence Onyebuchi developed, learning the different characters and their lives in New Haven, when all of the sudden it drops them to pick up two brand new narratives. These narratives become the next third of the book before picking up where Onyebuchi left off with the previous characters. These perspectives were welcome in terms of their content, but the integration felt abrupt for me.
But outside of that, they were just as mentally challenging and well crafted as the other sections. One, a sort of interview that details a man’s life up to the 2050s and the myriad ways the world falls apart and the situations he finds himself in. The other is a lot more jarring, as it’s told from the perspective of a white supremacist neo-confederate soldier on the run from a U.S. Marshall. It definitely sticks out like a sore thumb, but in the most deliberate way possible. There’s not much else to say because it’s something you kind of have to experience in context, but Onyebuchi handles it with aplomb.
Goliath is a tough novel to review, especially when trying to place it within the context of contemporary science/speculative fiction. I still don’t even have a fully formed opinion on it as I try to take it apart in my head. It stands on its own, and Onyebuchi is so creative in his exploration of a very real future, it feels like I’m doing a disservice by reviewing it like this, instead of providing a full literary analysis with cited sources. It’s a novel that takes its time and asks the reader to take a stroll with it to fully appreciate the stories Onyebuchi is attempting to tell. It’s both entertaining and deeply discomforting. He succeeds in stepping out of the usual narrative boundaries, and pulling me out of my comfort zone in so many different ways, from subject matter and themes to structural experimentation. It really is just something you have to experience yourself to appreciate and I hope you do.
Rating: Goliath 9.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.