Swapping the Skin on a Parable: A Review of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath
Goliath. Tochi Onyebuchi. Tordotcom, January 25, 2022.
The biblical tale of David versus Goliath is one of the first underdog tales to have existed. And, as is with any underdog tale, one must always keenly inspect the context in which the underdog shines and the demonised other lies dead. Goliath was a Philistine, a word which has been adopted into common parlance as indicative of uncouth and boorish behaviour, i.e., uncultured. However, the Philistines are not without their own history of persecution, forced assimilation, and erasure of identity, all quietly overlooked in this battle between good and evil—evil of course being the Philistines. So, delineating a whole race as inferior for not following the ways of the ones doling out the judgement, resulting in a war, and subsequent conquest of said inferior race: sound familiar?
At this point, we turn from the biblical past to a probable future, established by Onyebuchi in his first adult science fiction novel, Goliath. Earth, with America serving as its microcosm, has become uninhabitable. It is blanketed under a cloud of red dust and chemical accidents, which have contaminated its waters, made breathing difficult, and cancer inevitable. Politicians have abandoned ship, and so have the wealthy and powerful, i.e., the whites. Space is the next frontier for human exploitation, and in the midst of it all lie the disenfranchised, the political if not numerical minorities, and the ones who have always been on the outside looking in, told to keep their heads down and toil: the Black population. There is no stepping back from the fact that the conflict is a racial one, and neither does Onyebuchi want to bite his tongue.
More than being about plot, the novel is about wandering lives trying to make their brief time on earth worthwhile, to find companionship in the face of extreme loss of family and identity; Goliath explores an abstract idea of home as a placeholder in the search for meaning. It is a fruitless search, just like their lives, for these people live with the keen awareness that none of the people they grow to love, care for, or somehow save, have any chance of long-time survival. The lack of hope is stark, both in the novel and in its characters; yet, none comment on it. They only reminisce, once in a while, about their past lives. These people, young and old, wake up every day, knowing that the only thing they have to look forward to is an inevitably painful death, either from cancer or administered by the drone police, the “toasters.” Nevertheless, they fight for their daily bread, stand up to authorities and keep repairing a crumbling church, for there is a grim beauty to it. Although they have lived through it, the past seems more implausible than their current situations: the novel dwells on both “parallel presents and imaginary pasts.” Onyebuchi does not hold our hands through it. He flings us right into the middle of this dystopia—a dystopia which is really just a plausible follow-up to the reality we come across daily, through social media if not our lived experience.
This reality involves communities of colour being ousted from already devastated neighbourhoods due to gentrification, leading to drug abuse, gang violence, homelessness, and skyrocketing rent prices. Through David and Jonathan’s desire to buy a house on Earth, in the severely affected (and ironically named) New Haven area, we see how the “augmented” life holds precedence over the bleeding Black survivors. With its detailed descriptions of prisons and uprisings, Black lives and their interpersonal relationships as well as ones with society at large, the deep-rooted violence, police brutality and gang culture, Goliath feels like an extension of Onyebuchi’s novella Riot Baby.
Onyebuchi plays with narratives and timelines to show how the progress we all so dearly love to believe has been achieved is only true to a certain extent, and that the battle is by no means won—it is constant and brutal. One minute you are in the world of augmented beings, taking pictures with their eyes—where memory is a literal chip in the brain and bodies are designed to flush out toxins and stay ever-pure—and the next moment you are introduced to the “stackers” who are all blood and sweat, scraping a living collecting bricks from demolition sites. The back and forth structure of Goliath, which spans various timelines and over the lives of the characters, prior to the disaster and subsequent exodus, as well as the setting itself, are reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. While Dhalgren’s involves an almost forgotten hell-city in America, Goliath picks the whole country of America as the precipice of the racial tug-of-war.
The time before the disaster only exists in the collective memory, in cyberized brains, “…filtered and filtered and filtered, copied and re-encoded and JPEG-compressed until generation loss had made it nothing more than brushstrokes and discoloration and thick pixelated boundaries.” That tonal similarity extends to the absence of hope and purpose within the lives of the characters. Where Dhalgren’s Mobius strip narrative weaves in and out to avoid ever completely providing answers—Goliath offers prophetic vignettes highlighting the circular motion of history, leaving the reader piecing together the timelines of the story leading up to the present. Hence, a substantial portion of the novel is devoted to catching up the reader on the world that the characters inhabit, which may feel tedious, but it is essential to understand the roots of the ways of the world.
But then, who are the David and Goliath of this tale? My argument is this: we have been taught to see Goliath as the villain, as the one that must be stopped, for he and his kind do not adhere to the rules of the ruling system. But what if a whole race is deemed inferior, their lives devalued over another, and yet that marginalised race is asked to have faith in a faceless system built to strike them down at the smallest sign of protest, even for demanding the bare minimum? In being Goliaths, our defeat may already be written, so instead of trying to reshape our future, we must examine the past and point to the real enemies of humanity. Onyebuchi’s scroll of the future may offer no absolution, but it makes imperative the need to keep breathing and fighting even in the bleakest of landscapes.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch in October 2021 and edited by Jake Casella Brookins; the author and editor had no prior relationship. The author was referred to ARB by one of our reviewers. A review copy was provided by Tordotcom through Edelweiss.