Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” was originally published in the September 1, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
In “The Referees,” Joseph O’Neill’s narrator misunderstands his own narrative.
The story is of some interest because O’Neill’s third novel, Netherland Mookse review here), published in 2008, landed on the first page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and won a highly approving accolade from James Wood in The New Yorker. This story’s appearance also precedes the forthcoming publication of O’Neill’s newest work: The Dog.
The story has a specific initial audience — anyone who has ever looked for a place to live in New York. Or maybe Boston, where I hear people are “bidding up” again. And the September date is perfect for a story about apartment hunting.
Its kick depends from the beginning on the reader being in the dark. For that reason, read the story — and read it also because it’s funny, it’s wicked, and it’s unique. But if you’ve read the story, I proceed.
A thirty-six-year-old man has landed back in New York after splitting with Samantha. He’s found an apartment, but to obtain the lease, he needs two character “referees.” In the course of his hasty search, he is confronted with the deeper truth: he finds it difficult to get anyone at all to write a character reference for him. Nobody seems to like him very much, some people hate him, and everybody seems to want to keep their distance.
What I mustn’t do is give the wrong kind of credence to the apparent fact that, at the age of thirty-six, I find myself in the position of being unable to easily identify two people who know me well enough to plausibly and candidly state that I’m a sufficiently O.K. human being for the purpose of living in close vicinity to others.
This is a man in a pickle. Here’s a situation that calls for straight talk, and the best he can summon is gibberish. He needs a translator.
As I said, this is a narrator who misunderstands his own narrative. He misunderstands himself, his friends, and his relationship with the world. When given a yellow card by his “referees,” he ignores the warning. People, including his former significant other, his best friend from childhood, his former partner in a start-up, and a good friend from college, are all repelled by him. Even a distant relative who has taken him in keeps an almost total distance. Yet he persists. He says he shouldn’t respond to this reality in an “overly catastrophic way.”
He seems much the numb-skull. But then, hope for his awakening appears. Trying to write his own reference, he goes on-line for examples. When confronted with possible recommendations for “ethical, pleasant and dependable people,” he hilariously admits: “I had no idea the bar was so high.”
He wistfully remembers what he was like as a child, a child who had some of the characteristics of an ethical, pleasant, and dependable person. What we really want to know, however, is how he turned into someone no one trusts, how he’s going to turn back into his original — who was ethical, pleasant, and dependable.
In his interview with Willing Davidson (here), O’Neill discusses the story’s black comedy and the long list of authors who trade in the darkly comic. O’Neill gives each character a unique voice, and the effects of the voices are funny. The way the deluded narrator admits that he had no idea the bar was so high is perfection. There is a terrible humor in the narrator’s self-delusion.
But the story made me uncomfortable from start to finish. Here’s this annoying guy hearing home truths from everyone, and misreading almost every jibe. His name is Rob, or Robert, which, either way, is awfully close to robber. Rob will probably get his apartment — by hook or by crook — or by a reference that is a “lie, either white or off-white.”
And that’s where I began thinking that the reason I was so uncomfortable was because although the story was talking to me, it wasn’t saying anything I wanted to hear. Hmmm. One of the annoying truths Rob hears from Mike is that if you look around a poker table and don’t know who the asshole is — it’s you.
O’Neill writes in the international: his last two novels feature a Dutch banker in New York and a Swiss lawyer in Dubai. So why is the hero of this story an ugly American? Suddenly, if you look at Rob in the generic — as an ugly American, a robber baron, an unreliable, dishonest jerk who is unable to hold an ally, someone who is willing to trade in white and off-white lies to get whatever he needs — then the story “works,” it has a hook. Maybe O’Neill is merely trading in the curiously adolescent nature of the start-up mogul, à la Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Or maybe not.
Davidson uses the word “message” — asking if the message has to do with how where you live relates to self-worth. He jokes that the story’s message is a wish for everyone to “Leave New York.” O’Neill replies in kind, with a joke, and then he says, “I’m done with this story now, and am as mystified by it as the next person.”