June 22, 2008
Joseph O’Neill: Netherland
Here it comes, this year’s Great American Novel*, a shoo-in for everything from the Pulitzer to a place on Oprah’s couch, garlanded with praise in the UK alone from critics comparing it to Banville, Bellow, Fitzgerald and Updike. Even James Wood in The New Yorker loved it. And here I am, having disliked most of the last handful of books I’ve read, keen for something to love, just waiting to be seduced; frankly a pushover.
You’ll have predicted, from the breathlessness above, that I didn’t love it as much as they did; indeed I’m not sure I loved it at all. It was nonetheless worthwhile: I got to wonder how different my experience of reading it was, forearmed by all the orgiastic praise in the press, than it would have been if I’d picked it up at random. Just as we inevitably – consciously or not – give a book more consideration when we know it’s an established classic, I think I must do the same when I’m assured it’s a future classic. Certainly it’s conceivable that, without any knowledge of other opinions, I could have given up on Netherland early on. And that, just to muddy the waters of opinion one last time in this paragraph, would have been my loss.
The cover shows ice skating – a shrewd move, because the recreational sport that the book really revolves around is cricket, and a cover image of that would have limited sales dramatically, irrespective of reviews. Yet it is cricket, or rather the idea of cricket played by immigrants in New York, which is the great idea that gives the book steel down its spine. This works obviously as a metaphor both for the multicultural absorption of melting-pot America and the essence of fair play (“I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice”), but also adds a memorable, almost surreal note, and – crucially – brings to mind the sporting elements of other would-be Great American Novels (Rabbit‘s basketball, Underworld‘s baseball, American Pastoral‘s athletics). Netherland also consciously evokes another American classic, with a passage (which I didn’t mark in my copy and now, of course, can’t locate) that parallels Jay Gatsby gazing out at the green light of Daisy’s dock (and there’s mention of a boat on the last page too).
O’Neill’s Gatsby is Chuck Ramkissoon, who at the start of the novel is found dead in a canal. Our Nick Carraway, filling us in as to how he might have got there, is Dutch immigrant (via London) Hans van den Broek. He tells us:
Chuck valued craftiness and indirection. He found the ordinary run of dealings between people boring and insufficiently advantageous to him at the deep level of strategy at which he liked to operate. He believed in owning the impetus of a situation, in keeping the other guy off balance, in proceeding by way of sidesteps. … The truth is that there was nothing, or very little, I could have done to produce a different ending for Chuck Ramkissoon.
Chuck is the founder of the cricket league which Hans joins, and which yokes together the newcomers to New York, as well as the elements of the novel. Otherwise, Hans spends a good deal of time, narratively speaking, away from Chuck, which is to the book’s detriment. His present day concern is the reassembly of his fractured marriage, after his wife left him to return to London with their child. Her move was in part inspired by a sense of fear after the World Trade Center attacks, though unlike other readers, I’m unconvinced that this makes Netherland a “post 9/11″ novel: except in the sense that it was published in 2008, which is admittedly post 9/11. A more plausible link might be in a growing sense of fear of difference which could have led Chuck to fall foul of others, though Hans seems clear enough that he was significantly the author of his own misfortune.
The centripetal influence of Chuck as a character is welcome in a book which otherwise seems to dart about too much, and leave traces in too many places to cohere in the way that is achieved by so many of the books it’s been compared to. I also found evidence of effort on too many pages: for every just-so phrase (“ambulances sped eastward on West 23rd Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles”) there’s a tortured image (“a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel”), a case of arrestable whimsy (“Taspinar explained that he had dressed as an angel for two years now”), or plain clunkiness (“I’d assumed that some unilateral failing of mine had been at the bottom of our downfall; now it seemed that some malfunction of Rachel’s might also have been operative” – yes, he really did say might also have been operative).
There are other fine things worth mentioning, such as the book’s acute sense of the importance of place in personal memory and the prism of sentimentality through which it’s often viewed, as when Hans reflects on New York once he’s back in London (he’d been warned before going to New York that he would always miss it if he left):
[In London], unchanged is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling light-heartedness that’s aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I’ve speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point.
No doubt the book has many other qualities, spotted by the critics, which passed me by. In short, my difficulty with Netherland was that, while the central character of Chuck lit up every page he appeared on, and the bold central image of cricket in New York is a winner that will hold it widely in memory, the book as a whole just never took off for me; enjoyment is a chemical reaction between reader and book which either happens or doesn’t, and no amount of critical appraisal can gainsay that.
* contractual terms require the use of this phrase in all reviews of Netherland.