Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (2008) Pantheon (2008) 256 pp
For anyone looking to read the next Pulitzer’s front-runner, this is your best shot so far (at least of the books that have come up on my radar — please recommend contenders if you’ve found others). An interesting and entertaining (and pleasantly detailed) rumination on cricket in the United States, a contemporary variation on The Great Gatsby, probably the most convincing and nuanced post-9/11 novel I’ve read, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is the best new book I’ve read in the last few years.
But wait! I don’t want to oversell the book (too late?). I think I benefitted by reading The Asylum’s didn’t-love-it review, and I think that helped me go into this book with lower expectations — an amazing way to approach a book! So before even running through the elements of the plot, let me disclose a few of the things that stood out as less than “masterful.” Stylistically, there was this line:
A bell for the benefit of the blind burped at intervals as I rose.
This glaring alliteration calls attention to a line that says nothing, nothing even close to, important. Thankfully, such mediocre — or rather, less than mediocre — attempts at poetic prose are otherwise practically absent. Another annoyance was the wife’s conclusory manner of stating her political views in her quick jabs; they felt like they were in the book just to present some righteous anger toward the United States or toward her husband; she was just too eager that it felt unnatural at times, like she was writing a column rather than having a conversation over the phone with her husband. But that too didn’t stop me from really enjoying the book. So now, on to some of the reasons I loved it.
Much has been said in reviews about Netherland‘s being informed by (or relying on) The Great Gatsby, that great American novel that summed up the 1920s and cast an unflattering light on the American Dream. The final page of Gatsby looks back to the settlement of New York by the Dutch and perhaps can be seen by a Dutch writer (O’Neill was primarily raised in Holland) as an invitation to compose an up-to-date perspective. As a reminder, here is the line:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.
In Netherland, the Nick Carraway character, the self-reflecting narrator telling a bigger story than his own, is Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman who has moved with his English wife to New York. The Gatsby, the aspiring (or deluded) object of affection, is Chuck Ramkissoon, an imigrant from Trinidad. Daisy Buchanan is invoked as a plan to build a cricket field that will reorient Americans to the world’s civilized sport — and rake in a lot of money.
A sports arena for the greatest cricket teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant. You’re going to have a clubhouse. Two thousand members at one thousand dollars a year plus initiation fee.
The period being summed up in Netherland is the five years after the World Trade Center fell. The fear (rational? irrational?) that followed 9/11 is present in all of the pages of Netherland, yet it is sometimes subtle and, even when it is not so subtle, almost always indirect:
Our hotel apartment had two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a view of the tip of the Empire State Building. It also had extraordinary acoustics: in the hush of the small hours, a goods truck smashing into a pothole sounded like an explosion, and the fantastic howl of a passing motorbike once caused Rachel to vomit with terror.
Netherland doesn’t take all its cues from The Great Gatsby –in fact, throughout it impressively avoids feeling contrived and stays fresh. The narrator’s main story line is his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and their son following the attacks on the World Trade Center. Before the attacks, they lived in Tribeca, but after the attacks they moved to seemingly safer Midtown (to that hotel apartment mentioned above). Soon, Rachel cannot stand living in New York any longer, period, and this is an excellent excuse to separate from Hans, so she and their son move to London following the attacks.
What follows is a great story that follows two major story lines: Hans’s relationship with Chuck and the future of American cricket, and Hans’s relationship with his distant wife and child and their future as a family. All of this cast in a post-9/11 atmosphere that felt very real. Despite this, the main event in this novel is not 9/11; it is just the backdrop. It was nice to read a post-9/11 novel that is focused on the effects of 9/11 but that did it in such a way that provides at least a modicum of perspective.
Besides Gatsby, Netherland also called to remembrance that great essay “Here is New York” (1949) by E.B. White. White’s essay evokes nostalgia for a lost New York as White roams the city’s streets, describing, in his superbly simple yet elegant style, the essence of New York City. This essay was written soon after the United States used the atomic bomb on Japan, thus the essay also looks forward ominously — and, since 9/11, presciently — to destruction visiting the City:
A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
Even though Manhattan was not destroyed by the terrorist attacks, that was the closest thing to destruction from external forces the city has known. O’Neill seems to be picking up where White left off, describing in excellent prose the state of New York City at street level since the attacks. There’s nostalgia and pain, exacerbated by the absence of Hans’s wife and child and somewhat allayed by the prospect of a cricket field. All of these elements are intricately drawn, and there is a lot there to be studied and thought about in future readings. O’Neill is a very talented writer, and somehow he made me recognize feelings I didn’t know I felt.
At this point it is hard to know whether this book will stick to my mind once I’ve got some distance from it. So will it become a classic post-9/11 novel? When I finished it, I thought it could. But maybe after a few days and a few books have passed by — not to mention more time since the period it sums up — I will not remember that I once spent a lovely time wandering around New York thinking about what cricket could do to that terrific city. I hope that is not the case.
As a final note, and with some potential spoilers — so be careful! — the last sentence in White’s “Here is New York” is one of those superb moments in literature, when a great insightful piece is concluded with style and substance that makes the reader think for decades to come. Here White is talking about an old, battered willow tree:
In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: “This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.” If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.
I cannot be sure, but it sure seems like O’Neill had this very passage in his mind when he wrote the last page of Netherland. Remember:
You only had to look at our faces.
Which makes me remember my mother. I remember how I turned and caught her — how could I have forgotten this until now? — looking not at New York but at me, and smiling.
Which is how I come to face my family with the same smile.
There is a lot of hope in this last passage of Netherland, and it seems to be invoking the “marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death” moment in White’s essay. Some might think it is a bit too hopeful an ending for an otherwise ambivalent story. But hope is subverted time and time again — we try to move on.