Joseph O’Neill: Netherland

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 (2008) 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 GatsbyNetherland 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.

28 thoughts on “Joseph O’Neill: Netherland

  1. John Self says:

    Very interesting and insightful, Trevor. I’ve never heard of, let alone read, White’s “Here is New York” so that’s another comparison point that passed me by!

  2. I might be wrong, but I think the White essay was first published in The New Yorker and it’s as good an essay about a place as I’ve ever read.

    I’m still trying to figure out if I would have liked Netherland without knowledge of these other texts. Obviously some books are excellent because of the clever way they refer back to previous works. But others only feel excellent because one remembers the other text and misinterprets those pleasant feelings as affection for the new book. We’ll see.

  3. By the way, I’ve heard that this book is eligible for the Booker Prize (I imagine because O’Neill was born in Ireland and worked in England in his adult life, though he now lives in New York City). If this is the case, has a book ever been a finalist for both the Pulitzer (or National Book Award or NBCC Award) and the Booker? I can’t think of it happening. Then again, I have never looked into it.

  4. doni says:

    welcome back! :D
    i’m so excited to be hearing from you again.
    thanks for your posts!

  5. Thanks Doni. Sorry for the delay posting your comment. It got stuck in my spam filter . . .

  6. Today O’Neill’s Netherland was longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

  7. Thank you very much for this thoughtful, well researched, and well written review. I am definitely going to give this book a read. I don’t find a whole lot of books with a Dutch lead character.

  8. Thanks for your kinds words Literate Housewife! I hope you’ll share your thoughts on the book when you finish it.

    (And, by the way, I just read your most recent post on being “uninspired” and realized that it might be in the air. Normally I read while putting my son to rest at night, but tonight I just had to watch TV – something I haven’t done in a long long time. Tomorrow will be better!)

  9. I hope what we’ve caught will be gone soon!

  10. Stewart says:

    I don’t find a whole lot of books with a Dutch lead character.

    There’s loads if you read Dutch literature. ;)

  11. Excellent plug, Stewart, for an excellent forum!

  12. While wondering on John Self’s site, I found a link to this article by Zadie Smith in the NYRB. She discusses Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as they relate to trends in realism. Very interesting, and it shows that there is much more to this book than meets the eye. Smith points out some flaws in the novel, but I’m glad to see a discussion about its content and not just on its merits.

  13. For those of you in the New York area, Joseph O’Neill will be at a New York Times Book Review event on Wednesday, January 21, at 7 p.m. The event will be held at the Barnes & Nobel in Tribeca.

    I am not sure I’ll make it, but hopefully if I don’t some of you can!

  14. I’d say the PEN-Faulkner win puts this book back in the Pulitzer running — as your lede predicts. Good to see that at least one prize committee is thinking the same way that you do.

  15. Trevor says:

    I wasn’t paying any attention because I thought they said it would be announced in May, but excellent news! Now I have to read the other novels to see just how in tune I am with this committee. I have Lush Life but haven’t cracked it open yet. I did not even know about the other three.

  16. I’ve read about the Rash — must admit it did not interest me too much. A quick scan of the other two (Lush Life I’ve certainly read a lot about, but haven’t read the book) also doesn’t arouse immediate interest.

  17. On another matter, did you see yesterday’s Houghton Mifflin announcement that they will be bringing out a Roth this fall and have another scheduled for 2010? You may have to step up your Roth reading program to keep up with his publication schedule.

    Also on the book gossiping front, have you ever read Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio? Given that Roth used Winesburg in Indignation and Fante has Bandini thinking about going there in the Bandini Quartet, I can’t help but think that two very good authors from different eras were paying homage to Anderson — and I don’t know anything about the book except what I have googled since the thought came to mind. I’m thinking it is a work that I should investigate. It gets compared to The Great Gatsby and Main Street, both of which I do respect, and given my time living just east in Pittsburgh I am interested in fiction set in that part of the country.

  18. Trevor says:

    Kevin, sorry to not have anwered this sooner, but I somehow missed your posts!

    I did see that Roth has two books due in 2009 and 2010. I’m excited for both and will probably read them soon after they’re released (unless someone from Houghton Mifflin . . .).

    As for Sherwood Anderson’s book, I’ve heard of it but never looked into it. But your statement about two very good authors from two different eras paying homage to him makes it seem very relevant. I’ll have to look into it much sooner than I would have otherwise.

    That said, Kevin, I’m finally getting somewhat caught up with other things you’ve recommended to me (only about 100 pages left in The Age of Innocence) but I’m always looking for more even if it takes forever to navigate through the reading paths that keep coming up.

  19. I’ve ordered Winesburg, Ohio and will report once it has arrived. I am interested in authors who motivate those who currently intrigue me.

  20. Nathan says:

    You can read some or all of Winesburg at Bartleby: http://www.bartleby.com/156/

    Of the P/F finalists, Serena by Ron Rash is the only one I’ve read. I liked it a lot–full of action and it’s a re-telling of Macbeth. Netherland is deserving, though.

  21. Trevor says:

    I just noticed that Winesburge, Ohio is one of the Modern Library’s top 100 books of the 20th Century. Not that they named all of my favorites, but to me that is a good recommendation.

    Thanks for the link, Nathan. And here’s a linke to your review of Serena (if you don’t mind!).

  22. Trevor says:

    So turns out Obama is picking up Netherland for some good reading.

  23. Trevor says:

    In my review above I mentioned that I thought O’Neill’s Netherland had a lot of angles that would be interesting to explore for years to come. Kevin Neilson at Interpolations is doing just that — click here.

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