Review: Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi

This is an absolutely tremendous book that befits its Biblically gigantic name yet I feel the need to start the review in a similar way to many of the reviews I’ve since read. I initially struggled to get into the book but you should stick with it.

The other repeated review comparison I’ve seen is to Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. It is a comparison with some merit — both books do have a disorientating sense of an urban landscape in collapse — but it is not a helpful comparison. Rather like the initial statement I made, it is a comparison that feels like you are making either excuses or giving a warning. Where Dhalgren can feel obscure or even occult, Goliath is quite direct about its thesis even if it is complex in the way it interplays the lives of the multiple characters.

The core idea is simple and at various points, the characters explain it explicitly. At some point in our near future, many people leave Earth to live on colonies elsewhere. Bad air, diseases and radiation have made our planet not unlivable but definitely hostile. So many people left to find new lives elsewhere. Who though, gets left behind? In the America of Goliath, the answer is obvious: the poor and the marginalised.

This population shift is something we largely see in retrospect with the bulk of the story set in a new phase of future history. In the first section of the book (entitled “Summer”) and the final section (“Spring”) we encounter the remains of the city of New Haven from multiple perspectives. At one end, a group of “stackers” (sort of demolition men) and other denizens of the city, make their living as best they can in a world of limited electricity, poor sanitation and cybernetic police. At the other end, young wealthy people from the colonies, returning to Earth now that conditions have improved somewhat, eager to buy up abandoned (or not so abandoned) property. Reversed space colonisation as gentrification. That’s not a metaphor either, but something the story discusses overtly.

‘“You just don’t want to profit off of someone else’s misery. Is that it?” Eamonn did not smirk, nor did he chuckle. “Maybe this is gentrification, maybe it’s something else. You don’t know those people, and they don’t know you. Heck, they probably don’t even know about you.” “They shut the water off for them and turn it back on for us.”

Onyebuchi, Tochi. Goliath (p. 26). Tor Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Jonathon and David’s ambitions to make a new life back on Earth is set in contrast to the lives of the people who never had an opportunity to leave but they aren’t crude or shallow characters. Throughout the book, the key figures are given rich interior lives and complex feelings. While the emotional heart and beliefs of the book rest within the character of the stackers, particularly the veteran stacker Bishop, each person we meet have depth to them. In the audiobook version, this was enhanced with multiple narrators and in the ebook, the story shifts typography.

In the third section (Winter) we get the narrative voice of Jason Lingerfelt, a white supremacist murderer and vigilante. The story had already alluded to the territorial white gangs attempting to create a mini ethnostate in the semi-abandoned remains of the USA. Lingerfelt provides a perspective on that which at no point presents him as sympathetic and yet fully explores him as a person.

“Out the window, the pasture is charred and brittle. It looks how I remember it from the thunderstorms that attacked the homesteaders on the prairie when I was younger and stupider and runnin’ with men just as violent and hungry and desperate as me. Blackened patches where lightning struck and where tiny homes had turned into conflagrations, swallowing up the year’s harvest before the locusts had a chance. But this burn has a different smell to it; I can tell that much through the winda. It smells like salt poured into open wounds, like kicking a downed man, like rampaging after the war’d already been won. Or lost. It smells like the planet took revenge on us. It smells like Specials.”

Onyebuchi, Tochi. Goliath (pp. 211-212). Tor Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It’s almost lyrical and the semi-archaic style echoes the tone of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary.

Winter also expands deeper in the near-future history of the world we meet in Goliath. At times the proximity of that future world and our own can feel implausible and then on reflection, much less so given the speed at which climate impacts are occurring. The nature and plausibility of the colonies that many wealthy people had escaped to is not explored. We see very little of them mainly because they are beside the point.

Once again, I feel like I am misrepresenting this book. There is a sense of an epic piece of future history akin to Le Guin’s Always Coming Home but in an utterly different setting. There are explanations and historical interludes but these are interspersed with the tall tales, jokes and lives of ordinary people. The novel is as likely to discuss epic feuds over card games as the impacts of radiation on rare cacti.

‘One of the old heads, his face shadowed by his fedora, itched his salt-and-pepper stubble. “I’ll never forget it.” His voice was a flattened tire rolling over gravel. “Last Christmas. My sister-in-law cut over me with a big Joker. There was liquor involved. Also, I already couldn’t stand that bitch. So you know all hell broke loose. I was half-blind with the whiskey and stumbled my ass outside into the snow. Took a box a sugar with me outta the kitchen. Poured it all up in that bitch gas tank. She wanna underbid and shit. I’m like ‘bitch all we need is a seven, we made four!’ And I asked her specifically, are these Whitneys and Bobbys strong? That’s what I called my books: Whitneys and Bobbys. So I went out with a box of Dominos sugar and filled that bitch gas tank.” His shoulders shook with chuckles. “To this day, she still don’t know who did it.”

Onyebuchi, Tochi. Goliath (p. 127). Tor Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

I read the audiobook, which is an impressive production in itself, at times feeling more like an audio drama. Initially, the shifting perspectives and unclear story arc made the novel hard to warm to but the deeper I got into it the more compelling the shifting narratives became. The sense of the epic within the personal is underlined with the repeated Biblical motifs. The cities are like the Pyramids “It made sense that humans had built them, but without the stuff that they had now, such things seemed an impossibility.” The race to the colonies is an Exodus. Floods, disease, and vermin plague those who remain. Above all, a news image that gives the novel its name:

“An image has appeared on newsfeeds, pinging back and forth between the Colonies and cities around the world: a row of stackers, their hammers arrayed before them, while they kneel with their hands behind their heads before a row of riot police, helmets poking above plastic shields, a regiment of Spartans. Bent stalks of smoke flank them. Another has an otherwise tall and muscled stacker with his hammer back, whole body poised to swing, against an Aries mech that stands a foot taller than him. The caption reads: DAVID VERSUS GOLIATH.”

Onyebuchi, Tochi. Goliath (p. 274). Tor Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When I finished I really didn’t feel like I’d finished with the story and I immediately bought the ebook version. I didn’t re-read the whole thing but skipped through to help me tie some of the narratives back together.

Not a light read and definitely, a book that you need space to engage with. I’ve said how well the audiobook is done but I think the non-linear narrative may be easier to follow with the print version.


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