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.


  1. Hi John,
    After your suggestion that I might like to read ‘Netherland’ (made before we knew that O’Neill was not eligible for the Man Booker) I’m still waiting for my library reservation to come through, so I’m not reading your review yet. I like to make my own mind up before I read what others say. This is also why I’m refraining from reading your comments on ‘The Seige of Krishnapur’ and ‘The Conservatioist.’ I’m half way through the former and the Gordimer is next on the list – they are the two ‘Best of Bookers’ I had not read, tho’ I’m re-reading the other four – and I’m looking forward to seeing what you say once I’m done reading.
    Meanwhile … some weeks ago I saw a list that you had done where you detailed all the books/authors that are automatically eligible for this years’ Man Booker. Can you tell me where to find it, please? I’m not sure if it is on your Blog or on the Man Booker site. I’ve done a little searching and failed to find it so far. Thanks again for your longlist suggestions … I have more and more books piling up!!

  2. Hi John,

    I can relate to your experience. Roberto Bolano’s work has been universally praised it seems. Expectations were raised, and not, in the case of Nazi Literature: ( )
    met. The book is, nonetheless, definitely worth reading, and I will make my way over to The Savage Detective and 2666 at some point.

    re: chemical reaction: this may explain why I love War and Peace and yet haven’t been able to get past page 100 of Anna Karenina. Others have told me of similar experiences with The Brothers Karamazov: can’t read; Crime and Punishment: deem brilliant.

  3. Nigel, I think there’s an understandable human desire among critics and readers to be “in on the ground floor” of the next big thing. This sometimes leads to overpraise, which ironically can be most harmful when applied to a good book: people will then be disappointed that it’s ‘only’ very good and not outstanding, and may unreasonably dismiss it as a result.

    Carole, the list you are looking for was posted as a comment to Michael Portillo’s first blog post on the Man Booker site. To save you navigating your way there again (it doesn’t seem possible to link directly to that post), here is the list of the books I consider to be automatic entrants for this year’s prize (this means any book by a previous winner or an author who was shortlisted in the last ten years):

    Salman Rushdie – The Enchantress Of Florence
    Peter Carey – His Illegal Self
    James Kelman – Kieron Smith, Boy
    Damon Galgut – The Imposter
    Sebastian Barry – The Secret Scripture
    Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy
    Andrew Miller – One Morning Like a Bird
    Tim Winton – Breath
    Clare Morrall – The Language of Others

    I’ve only read two of these (Smith and Winton), and I’m not sure anyway if Ali Smith qualifies as it’s not a ‘proper novel’ but part of the Canongate Myth series.

    As to the Best of Booker, all I can say is that the three I had read before the list was announced – Carey, Rushdie and Coetzee – would still be my top three. My post on Barker’s The Ghost Road will go up later this week.

  4. I agree with you about the pages really coming to life when Chuck Ramkisoon is on them. In his character I could sense a glance in the direction of VS Naiapul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’, the tragi-comic Indo-Trinidadian dreamer with an idea of how to find a space of his own in the world. And for a novel to assimilate Jay Gatsby and achieve a balance and reserve in that assimilation is to be admired. To take on the influence of that seminal and haunting work of American literature and carve something subtle and fresh is impressive. I can understand the caution struck in the points you make about over-praise too.

    I feel that perhaps America has been ‘waiting’ for a novel to contextualise the events of 2001, to make some kind of sense of them in the glancing form of the novel. Netherland becomes not only ‘The Great American Novel’, that never-ending hallucination which examines and reflects upon the notion of American exceptionalism and enlightenment, it also becomes a State of the Nation work by describing near-at-hand moments, within fresh collective memory, the attacks, the war in Iraq. And hence, the novel may have been fallen on with gratefulness, as though it manifests a significance beyond itself. And yet, I do believe that some of this gratefulness is justified.

    That O’Neill does this by embodying revifying American idealism in an immigrant hustler of Indo-Carribean origin, contextualising all of this not in the stories of European, Jewish or Hispanic immigrants of the past, but in the lives of Jamaican, Indian, Trinidadian, African, Pakistani immigrants, opens (at least to me) a refreshing new territory to this narrative. In the 21st Century it is the men and women of the former British Empire who make New York their home, who stare at the green light across the bay, who take the sublime pleasures and idealism of cricket as their connection to the past and consolidator of the present, their love for the game representing both their marginality to America as well as strangely embodying something intrisic about their place in that society too.

    And then, America in the world, excursions to England, Holland, India, and the Carribean, the awareness that American insularity is no longer possible, that the world is leaving footprints on America just as she leaves her footprints across the world (for better or worse), and that the world through the immigrant has always had ghostly and tangible footprints on America, from the Dutch sailor’s eyes, to Hans and Chuck.

    I found the novel quite satisfying. I suspect that if you were to re-read it again say in a years time, after your natural and understandable resistance to the ‘great new novel’ aura has abated, you might find the strengths which you recognize have a persistence and continuance which out live the elements that you identified as being static, of hitting the note slightly wrongly.

    I do believe that this is a novel that has an afterglow.

  5. Thank you for your eloquent and considered appraisal of this book, Paul. I can’t disagree with any of your observations, and afterglow is precisely the right word: I finished Netherland over a week ago and have read two-and-a-bit books since, but it has stuck in my memory more than many books do (including one of the ones I’ve read since!). It wouldn’t take much to persuade me to revisit it as you’ve suggested.

    As for post-9/11-ness, I’d be interested in others’ views of which books have addressed the subject most effectively. I was impressed by DeLillo’s Falling Man, but not at all by McInerney’s The Good Life (both written about elsewhere on this blog), and have no interest in Updike’s Terrorist. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I found highly entertaining, though it seemed to have not much more than a surface connection to the subject. No doubt there are many others I haven’t read or can’t think of right now.

  6. I read an advanced copy of the definitve post-Katrina novel, City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. Such praise, such insignt, said the back cover.

    Well, I was highly disappointed. Don’t read it when it comes out.

  7. No forgiveness necessary Mark – in fact I saw the interview and read it with great interest when it went up last week. Please do continue to alert readers here to relevant links on your sites – especially now it’s been confirmed that you’re one of the most influential people in publishing! (Can I guess you’ll be voting for Ian McEwan? 😉 )

    Isabel, I take my hat off to you – that must be the pithiest review of a book I’ve ever read!

  8. Hi Jan

    Yes that’s the UK cover. Interesting to see that the US cover does show cricket! Perhaps cricket has a different image (or, being less well known in the US, no image at all) there than it does in the UK!

    I was very interested too in your own review of Netherland. As a long-time fan of Patrick McGrath and Kazuo Ishiguro, I like to think that I’m always on the lookout for an unreliable narrator, but I must admit that possibility didn’t occur to me at all when reading Netherland. But it would tie in with the Gatsby connection, where Nick Carraway describes himself as (paraphrasing) ‘the most honest person I know’ which immediately sets bells ringing for the reader as to the veracity of his narrative. I will have to ponder this and maybe bring forward that re-read I’ve been contemplating! Thanks for visiting and for your comments.

  9. Hi, John,
    It’s fascinating that cricket was used in the U.S. but not the U.K. (and also that the cover seems to be selling well on, where it was #220 the last time I checked). I think your speculation about the cover is right on the money: Cricket is so little known here that people don’t bring the same assumptions to it that they do in Britain (where, in my experience, you can hardly take a brief weekend train ride without seeing a dozen matches out of your window).

    Your comment about Patrick McGrath also struck a chord. I, too, a great fan of McGrath, whom I regard as the best living writer of neo-Gothics. And I’ve been wondering why no major newspaper appears to have asked him to review “Netherland” — not just because of the narration but because the novel has so many Gothic undertones. The Chelsea Hotel is a wonderful stand-in for a castle or decaying manor house. It has a famous stairway known as “the Gothic staircase,” though O’Neill calls it just “baronial.” (You can find photos of it if you use Google “Images” to search for phrases such as “Chelsea Hotel” and “Gothic staircase.”) O’Neill also uses the New York subways as something of a surrogate for the Gothic novelist’s secret passageways.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to read McGrath’s comments on the novel?

  10. Indeed it would Jan – a tempting thought – but when I interviewed McGrath recently I asked him about the Gothic tag and he seems to find it limiting more than anything else. So tread carefully there! (Though he does admit that the Victorian asylum in his new novel Trauma has a “gothic feel” to it.)

    I think the UK publishers were probably nervous of foregrounding the cricket association, but now that it’s doing very well in full knowledge of the subject matter (its UK Amazon rank is even higher than the US, at 122), I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the cover of the paperback making it more prominent.

    (Incidentally, for anyone wondering about the US cover Jan refers to above, I’ve preserved it for posterity here. Much finer than the UK cover, I think. And here is a wonderful photo of the staircase at the Chelsea Hotel, by Mark Holmes. You’re right Jan: positively Gothic!)

  11. The cricket should be foregrounded in the cover. The cultural and emotional resonance and meaning of the game is perhaps the sustaining thread of the novel. So strange that the publishers in the UK seem to be afraid of priveliging it on the cover, despite its weaving together the disparate characters, places, eras, and dreams in the narrative. The striking juxtaposition that forms so much of the quiet energy of Netherland, the juxtaposition of cricket and New York / America, should have provided ideas for creative originality in the design to catch the eye of the potential reader. I don’t get any sense of the resonance of the work from the ice skating cover. I like the American one, and I guess the curiousity of cricket is what the publishers found enticing there.

    By the way, did either of you find the book funny in places? I laughed out loud twice, once near the start when Chuck intervenes when the drunken player / spectator comes on the cricket pitch with a gun, and the speech he gives afterwards, and during the disco at the cricket club when Hans is surrounded by hisWest Indian and South Asian friends bumping and grinding to chutney soca music.

  12. I enjoyed it a lot more than you did, John, though I can’t really argue with any of your points. For me, though, the post-9/11 elements of it worked really well: rather better than those in other novels/stories by American born, New York natives. I though O’Neill captured that looming paranoia about what might happemn next rather well.

  13. Surprised to hear to see you say you have no interest in ‘Terrorist’, John. I’m not a massive Updike fan, but I thought the prose in that novel was just staggering. I’ve finished ‘Falling Man’ today and, while it has some moving moments, it’s nowhere near as accomplished as the Updike book.

    And now I’m moving on to ‘Netherland’ which I *think* I’ll enjoy but not love.

    Oh, and Robert Bolano? A friend tells me ‘The Savage Detectives’ is the best novel he’s read in ten years. Looking forward to the paperback next month!

  14. Well Gavin, it’s mainly because Updike disappointed me terribly with A Month of Sundays recently. Naturally your recommendation of Terrorist has just made me back-pedal on that stance a bit. Good to see you back here, by the way, and I look forward to seeing what you make of Netherland. (The UK publishers of The Savage Detectives sent me a copy last year but it never arrived for some reason, and is probably even now languishing in a sorting office somewhere. But yes, at 600-odd pages, one for paperback definitely.)

    Paul, no the scenes you mention didn’t make me laugh, though I did think the opening cricket match and interruption was a terrific set piece. Anyway I think we’ve seen, from the comments by you, JRSM and Jan, that this is a book which brings different things to different readers. Which may be one definition of greatness.

  15. I enjoyed your thoughtful review on this one, John, despite the fact that I liked the book better. The thing that worked about this being a ‘post 9/11 book’ for me, is the way Rachel up-ends her life in response to the displacement she feels and the certainty her opinions take on. It is so typical of the reactions I have witnessed here in the US, particularly in New York.

    I would imagine the English relationship to cricket making the book a completely different reading experience. The cricket world is nothing if not exotic in New York. It draws Hans into becoming part of a social and racial mileu, he would never otherwise have been known. He ventures to geographical locations far afield from the upscale Soho and Chelsea environments he frequented – places he would not have otherwise have seen. He takes more risks. It is as though he becomes a person of broader context and bases behavior less on the purely rational, while Rachel narrows her focus, shutting down to what she has known before and retreating with her child to cover. Their reactions to the events seem to evoke in the personal realm the world’s reactions in a political realm. And it is as though Chuck R embodies the world of irrational dreams and once Hans has run his course in this world, and that trippy period comes to an end – Chuck dies. It’s almost as if Chuck exists as an extension of Hans. On one level I experienced the book as one about the death of dreams.

  16. A terrific interpretation, Ted, and I take these points absolutely.

    It is as though he becomes a person of broader context and bases behavior less on the purely rational, while Rachel narrows her focus, shutting down to what she has known before and retreating with her child to cover. Their reactions to the events seem to evoke in the personal realm the world’s reactions in a political realm.

    Nicely put. If I reread the book now, no doubt I would find now many of the things which others have highlighted here. I wonder whether my experience of it would still be ‘my [own] reading’? Perhaps not entirely. Would it be a better, more informed reading though? Definitely. And I have everyone here to thank for that.

  17. Good little interview with the author on the Guardian blog here.

    He talks at one point about how the theme and story surrounding cricket challenges the insularity of the New York / American narrative, brings the outside world to America and to the kind of American novel that worked as template for the story…..”an attempt to modify….and bring it into line with other extra-American narratives and perspectives.

  18. I finished the book last night and, like John, didn’t feel quite as dazzled as I was supposed to. I think it’s a well put together, intelligent book with a few great passages (a graveyard that was ‘a necropolitan replica of the Manhatten skyline beyond it’), but a little too studied and dispassionate for me. The angst-ridden lives of wealthy New Yorkers who feel ‘conflicted’ over the war in Iraq is a tough sell, and O’Neill didn’t quite manage it for me. Lovely final page, though.

  19. Even though Netherland is still my favorite (of the only two!) books on the longlist I’ve read. I just finished and reviewed The White Tiger and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. In a sense I was just reading that one early on to get it over with, and now it might turn out to be one of my frontrunners. If it turns out to be one of the worst, then I’m in for a good Booker season!

  20. Just finished this one and thoroughly enjoyed it for so many reasons. Knowing a little about cricket certainly helps. If you do not know your Barry Richards from your Viv Richards then you will probably miss out a little. But it is not vital, just as you can still enjoy Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’ with no knowledge of surfing or Tim Parks ‘Rapids’ having never experienced white water canoeing. But if you understand the sport, then you can appreciate aspects such as the position of Holland in world cricket and Hans’ wistful regret at not being there to face Brett Lee in the 2003 World Cup. And Chuck’s dream seems so realistic at a time when the Americans are starting to see and invest in the sport.
    I have never been to New York but now feel that I understand this city just a little bit better. Taspinar may be a stereotype but this is a character that could only be from New York. You could almost hear Antony and the Johnsons in the background whenever he is present.
    I have been fortunate enough to spend time in Holland. How apt that O’Neill has made Hans six foot five. This is the only country in the world where I have felt short at six foot two.
    A very well crafted novel. This is the kind of book that almost has me wanting to start my own blog! What to read next? Always a problem when you have just enjoyed a book so much. Maybe the new Patrick McGrath to the rescue.

  21. Thanks Andy – I’m glad you enjoyed it so much (and no, I don’t know anything about cricket…). Yes, Taspinar was a very Antony and the Johnsons character, wasn’t he? – nice link!

    If you do read the McGrath – or anything else – I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  22. I enjoyed this one hugely, as I did “The White Tiger” (it seems we are fated to disagree, John, though I see we were both impressed by “Cloud Atlas”).

    It’s odd that nobody (?) is pointing out the influence of Sebald on O’Neil’s tone: the ruminations on Cricket in particular, confidently offbeat and absorbing, seem to bear WGS’ stamp. I should dig up my notes from the margins to make a better case…

  23. Hi John,
    This is my first time post. In anticipation of the announcement of the Booker shortlist, I am trying to read the 7 longlisted books that I have managed to find. Netherland was the second book I read, and in general I liked it. Perhaps after reading Sea of Poppies which is populated with so many characters that remain more or less two-dimensional, it was refreshing to read a book with one central character/narrator and where the author delves deeper into his psyche.
    After reading the reviews and the comments, I have to say that I agree with some of the negative comments such as the fact that the characters of Rachel and Chuck are not adequately developed. Still….
    There is something haunting about the novel. Maybe the fact that it is a sensitive study of someone who has been suprised by pain and had not had the chance to build up his defense mechanisms and has to start doing so now. Although I know very little about cricket, I agree with you that the passages that talk about cricket are among the most poignant in the novel as they portray how in difficult times, the things that give us pleasure become so imporant. On that level, I found the novel very genuine.

  24. Hi Susanne, thanks for visiting and for sharing your thoughts. Although I didn’t enjoy Netherland as much as others did (including you), it certainly has qualities and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it make the Booker shortlist.

    What are the other longlisted titles apart from this and Sea of Poppies that you’ve managed to get hold of?

  25. Dear John,
    Thanks for the reply. I have just finished reading A Fraction of the Whole and have started on A Case of Exploding Mangoes. I don’t know what to make of it so far. The other books I have are Child 44, Enchantress of Florence and the Northern Clemency.

    I live in Egypt, so I have no idea when the other books will arrive in the bookstores here. I will just wait until I travel or other people travel abroad to try and get the rest.

    Concerning last year’s Booker prize winner, it had to be one of the least popular Booker Prize winner of all time. For me, the fact that it won was also a big disappointment. While I have to acknowledge that there is much skill in the writing, it was a drudge to read.

  26. Well, Susanne, I finished A Case of Exploding Mangoes and still didn’t know what to make of it! I’ll be posting on it here in a day or two. I’m afraid as you may have seen from my reviews here, I can’t strongly recommend the Rushdie or Tom Rob Smith either. I hope you get more out of them though, as you did with Netherland. I’m currently reading The Northern Clemency and it’s better written than most of the books on the longlist but very, very long!

    As for last year, I had mixed feelings about The Gathering, but I’d actually be interested to reread it, to see if I get more out of it the second time, as the judges clearly did. A lot of people seem to have liked it though (see the comments in my link), so good luck to them. To be honest though, I can’t remember the last time I thought the best book won the Booker Prize. Maybe Coetzee’s Disgrace in 1999, or even as far back as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in 1989.

    Anyway, if you’re interested, you’ll see on my sidebar a few titles I think should have been longlisted this year, all of which I liked a lot more than any of the longlisted titles. Others on the Man Booker forum have praised these books also, and added others like His Illegal Self by Peter Carey, or James Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Boy. Not sure whether any of these will be available in Egypt!

  27. I have to laugh at your description of the cover because the U.S. copy has just that – a scene of cricket. I did manage to push on and finish the book but I really don’t recommend it. Any comparisons to Fitzgerald are just crazy. He did have some amazing turns of phrase I have to say. I am still not sure what the real story of this book is supposed to be.

  28. I don’t think that people have compared O’Neill with Fitzgerald, which would definitely be overstating praise. People are comparing drawing links between Netherland and The Great Gatsby, and the links definitely exist: the death of the dreamer, the unattainable dream, the driving around NY burroughs, the role of the narrator in all of this. Sure, it’s not a direct analog, but it’s definitely there.

  29. Hi, John,
    A quick follow-up to the comment that “people” are comparing “Netherland” to “The Great Gatsby.” Here the U.S., those people are chiefly the publishers (who beat that drum from the start in promotional materials you can read here And while I admired “Netherland” more than any 2008 novel I’ve read, the “Gatsby” comparisons are a reach.

    In my experience as a critic, more American novels are compared by their publishers to “Gatsby” than any other classic simply because it is the most “accessible” — oh, vile word! — of our canonical novels. Many critics might argue that “Moby-Dick” is the greater book, for example. But you never see publishers comparing their new novels to it, because that might scare people away (or so you can imagine the publicists thinking).

    I hope that “Netherland” makes the Man Booker shortlist on Tuesday but also that if it does, the judges will avoid comparing it to Fitzgerald in their citation. Such a comparison would do a disservice to readers, implying that they might not read the book if it wasn’t in in a class with “Gatsby.” How many books are in that class?

  30. It definitely has Gatsby as its template, with Ramkisoon as the Jay figure and Hans as Carraway. I don’t think anyone would claim that it is in the same class as that novel, but O’Neill works in the outline of that American masterpiece to bring together a book that touches on perennial themes, that over reaching, the mythology of modern America, the echoes of the ‘Dutch sailor’s eyes’ in the discovery of New York’s forgotten layers of Dutch history; the new Gatsby’s as immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Africa. I don’t think the comparisons are being made in terms of immensity of achievment, but of conscious influence and model, and to a certain extent, of tribute to Fitzgerald’s still living novel.

  31. Intrigued by references to The Great Gatsby somewhere last year, I pulled out both it and Catcher in The Rye to revisit my youthful reading memories. I have to say that Salinger won the skirmish — which rather surprised me. I also don’t think O’Neil’s publishers did him any favor with the comparison (which certainly was relentless here in North America).

  32. Hi, Paul,
    You could be right about that template, but I’m with Kevin: O’Neill’s publishers (and the critics who took their cues from them) didn’t do him any favor by harping on it. We hear so many such comparisons in the States that it fosters a cynicism among readers that ultimately works against books.

    Still think O’Neill should waltz onto the shortlist, though. I just put up a post on One-Minute Book reviews saying that if “Netherland” doesn’t make the finals, it will be the literary equivalent of the startling Sarah Palin nomination in reverse.

  33. Another good review John — I’m pretty sure you’re more reliable than the actual Booker judges.

    I was impressed by Fin (above) spotting the Sebald influence — I had similar thoughts myself. Sebald writes fiction in the guise of travel writing; O’Neill writes travel writing in the guise of fiction. But O’Neill comes off badly in the comparison. I can’t help thinking London and New York are too overdescribed in literature, too cliché — O’Neill can’t mould them to his own ends in the way Sebald in The Rings of Saturn makes Suffolk indisputably his.

    I also thought a certain “chemical reaction” was missing. I think the cause is a lack of conventional beginning-to-end narrative. The book is a highly disjointed tour round the fog of memory (moreover — memories of a banal and miserable life), with the result that the reader sees the book’s scenes through the narrator’s gloom, from a hazy distance, so to speak. I had the same problem with Banville’s The Sea. You could call it the “mope-lit” genre.

    At the same time, I did find it very readable and extremely competent. Like The Impostor, it seemed like the sort of thing that would walk it on to a Booker shortlist in a fairer world.

  34. Thanks Jonathan. Heh, “extremely competent” sounds like faint praise indeed! I’m currently reading another eligible novel, Tim Parks’ Dreams of Rivers and Seas which, like so many others, seems to me if not exceptional, then certainly better than most of the Booker longlist.

    I am certainly open to others’ views of a book, and some of the praise Netherland has garnered since its Booker longlisting has made me think I should revisit it. (I greatly admire the willingness of a commenter here, KevinfromCanada, to do just that with titles he otherwise had limited liking for.) Then again, I only read it in the first place because of all the even greater praise it had had before its Booker longlisting, and wasn’t impressed then. So I think I need to trust my own instincts on it.

    Certainly though you have made me want to revisit The Rings of Saturn which has never really stopped circling around in my head, ‘hazy’ in a good way this time, since I first read it ten years ago. You are spot on to note that Sebald’s reclamation of Suffolk from somewhere that barely registers on the cultural consciousness for most of us, into something entirely rich and strange, is key. New York and London are impossible to make new – though later this week I will be writing about Richard Price’s new novel, which presents New York not unexpectedly, but expertly and satisfyingly.

  35. Hi John

    I remember our messageboard musings well, and fondly…just stumbled upon this site as I attempted to locate any opinions on how Netherland could possibly elude the panel this year. I see that you have a few issues with it, which is interesting. (And the passage you have placed amidst your original comment referring to the CLANGING use of ‘operative’ is indeed a serious (but I’d say uncharacteristic) boner.)

    In any case, I thought the book to be quietly powerful and full of heart, ending on a brilliantly evocative note of hope. To put in context, I read three books in quick succession: Paul Auster’s ‘Man In The Dark; Junot Diaz’s ‘The Brief And Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao’; and the aforementioned. The Auster feels like marking time and is not particularly good, the Diaz is very, very good, and the O’Neill, I felt, superb. All three are set largely in the gravitas-drenched Big Apple, and whilst Auster seems latterly content to use an off-the-peg NY to shoehorn brittle ideas about identity and malaise into vaguely tired narratives, and Diaz veers inexorably towards the dark side from the jaws of bloodied promise, O’Neill offers up a picture, though hardly averse to heading off the bad stuff, of a New York and a world with at least a cap-doff to hope and the beauty of a glorious human failure.

    At least Rushdie didn’t make it, eh? But seriously, the Booker has got it wrong for only the umpteenth time, so it shouldn’t matter. One can only hope the non-inclusion hasn’t sounded the death-knell for a cricket boom in New York, which would’e been a seriously perverse, but shockingly great event. Chuck Ramskisoon and Obama parallels, anyone…?

  36. Hi Lee – long time indeed. Good to hear from you again.

    As you’ll see if you look around here, I have differing opinions from you not only on Netherland but also Man in the Dark and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (although I’ve been thinking about the last recently and wondering if I underrated it). I’ve also read all the Booker longlist – I don’t recommend it – and you can see thoughts on those here too. Do stick around.

  37. I did go back to Netherland and will admit my second reading moved the book up, at least somewhat. My hypothesis (and given Lee’s NY reading list I would most appreciate his opinion) is that Netherland speaks to New Yorkers, or those who are close to it, in a way that it doesn’t to those of us elsewhere in the world. A lot of novelists have written post 9/11 fiction, most of it, frankly, dreadful. O’Neill’s book, I think, captures some of the elements of living in post 9/11 NY (particularly the stress of his marriage) and the dislocation that resulted in a way that other writers haven’t — the cricket extended metaphor is perhaps the best indication that this is not a real world.

    I have come to appreciate this book more since I first read it for just that reason. What was annoying on the first read (some of his descriptions of the City read like a travelogue even for those of us who only visit it) becomes much more substantive the second time around. And what I originally thought was a shallowness in the main character actually becomes a strength — he is overtaken by the world that surrounds him.

    I’m not surprised Netherland didn’t make the Booker shortlist — I’m afraid it is just too American (and we could have a long debate about whether it or Diaz is a better book — I’m still leaning towards Diaz). I’ll be very interested in seeing how it fares in the U.S. contests.

    1. I disagree with your hypothesis, Kevin, that the book speaks to New Yorkers or those close to it in a way that it doesn’t to the rest of the world. I loved this book from beginning to end, yet I have only been to New York once. It happened to be near the end of 2002, and as some of this book was set at that time, I suppose that did have some influence on my reading.

      I don’t think I agree at all with your assertion that it is too American. Perhaps being an ex-pat myself, I was relating to the story in that way too, but I’m not in America!

      I did keep forgetting that Hans was Dutch though; I had him down as very English, and then would be reminded by his memories of the Hague.

      Great blog post, which has invited so many interesting comments, JS.

  38. Well, on a brief note, I’ve been to New York a couple of times. The version I bought into beforehand – the twinkly, panoramic, cuddly metropolis of endless possibilities full of vital people that instigate zeitgeist swerves and never sleep (my fault or media or both, who can say?) – was partially true. The overriding feeling, though, was (of course) of a cold, vacantly frantic sensory overload and completely indifferent magnitude. Because a city like New York is virtually impossible to encapsulate in any meaningful, not token way. The glistening skyscrapers that loom proudly on posters and television shows, those anthropomorphised beacons that say all kinds of inherently impressive and graspable things seen from afar, become huge totems of overwhelming alienation when you walk amongst them. I think, finally getting to the point, that O’Neill, at the close of Netherland, approaching Manhattan with his mother, as he ruminates on NY as representing human possibility and a soaring sense of becoming (for want of another word), he turns to see his mother looking in wonderment, not at the approaching cityscape, but at him. I found the scene to be almost unbearably moving, for all kinds of reasons. I feel that O’Neill has done what Auster manages at his best; to convincingly portray NY as both unfathomable and yet nothing to fear, ie a hopeful site of looking inward as well as outward, a reflection of us. Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a certain convenient effortless grandiosity that comes with basing ANY story in New York, that it can act as a kind of lazy shorthand for weight and magnitude, nor that it’s better than any other environment for dealing with this kind of eternal concern (and the 9/11 thing is kind of stick-on pseudo gravitas for some). But O’Neill has, I think, managed something funny, real, captivating and touching out of such potentially fraught raw materials, and I think that’s a real achievement. Deborah Eisenberg managed something similar with Twilight Of The Superheroes, Delillo less so with Falling Man, and I think most writers have struggled since you-know-when to avoid merely re-assembling the wreckage. Auster in particular seems to have suffered, I think due to the fact that he can’t face NY head-on any more. I think O’Neill may have re-established New York as somewhere that can be considered home, both vicariously for readers and literally for reading residents, though I don’t know how accurate such an assertion is. Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Auster, Delillo et al are perhaps at too little a remove; O’Neill seems, perhaps, to have the perfect standpoint.

  39. A brief continuation: I just don’t like reconstructions as a way of getting to the crux of something like this (and everything set in New York for the next God knows how many years can hardly escape it) and much prefer a tangential approach, which I always feel works better. O’Neill gives us something vivid; Auster’s book seems sketchily whimsical, which pains me to suggest as I love Auster.

  40. Lee, I found that your insights on Netherland expressed some of my own feelings that I couldn’t quite put into words. I also sensed that O’Neill reestablished NY as a place that can be considered home, yet he didn’t shy away from much of the turmoil of post-9/11 residency. Very well put. Helped me remember why this was my favorite of the Booker longlist and one of my favorite books of the year.

    By the way, have you by any chance read E.B. White’s essay “Here is New York”? I felt it did a similar thing back in the 1950s soon after the A-Bomb was dropped and New York felt much less secure. It’s quite an essay, and I found Netherland to have some ties to it and reached a similar effect. In fact, the last lines in the essay are somewhat similar (I might be stretching, though) to the last lines in the book.

  41. Well, I went in search of the very essay and found this excerpt, which, as you can see, complements Netherland perfectly. I must get hold of the full essay but, in the meantime there is the following.

    “There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. . . .

    The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

    All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

    I can see why you mentioned this in relation to the book, Trevor, and if Netherland can actually do what we are suggesting it might well have managed, it can only add to the confusion surrounding it’s exclusion from the final Booker 6. It has rightly been compared to Fitzgerald (it has that assured sense of comfortable poise) and we can only hope it gets a wide enough readership, and maybe gets a stateside gong or two. It deserves every accolade it gets.

  42. I meant the first one you wrote just now, although the others are great too. That reference in the essay to how it can all be brought to an end by a single flight of planes that ‘can burn the towers’, is haunting and eerie, to have been written in the 1950’s.

  43. I hesitate to add too much of the White essay here, but here goes anyway. This is the last line in the essay. The “it” is an old tree in the City. When I read the last lines in Netherland, this passage sprung to my mind immediately. Could be a coincidence. Then again, White’s connection to The New Yorker, where this essay was first published, makes it hard to believe that O’Neill, another contributor to America’s literary magazines, hasn’t read it.

    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.

  44. The excerpts from the White essay, which I admit I did not know, are excellent — I do think this is a summary of what I would call the challenge of New York. I particularly like the three categories that he creates (I am in the third) and the recognition of what this implies about what is written about the city. Netherland certainly adds to that — I’m still not as keen as Trevor about the success of the book but I am beginning to find it more appealing.

    I also cannot help but compare fiction books that use London to the same purpose. I admit I love both cities (as a frequent visitor) — I also like London more. When I look at some of the recent fiction that is set there (Macewan, Ali and Zadie Smith all come to mind), I find a very different picture from that that is being created of modern New York. And it does confirm my personal experience — New York seems to demand assimilation, London celebrates divergence. I can’t help but think of sitting in St. James’s Park in London one weekend afternoon, counting how many languages we heard as people walked by (we stopped counting at 17 as I recall). I love Central Park every bit as much, but I don’t think I would ever try language counting there. Now that I think about it, I do believe this is part of what O’Neill was trying to say in this book. If you add Trauma and Lahiri to the reading experience, you start to get some of the alienation side of what White talks about in his essay — contrasted, of course, by the positive promise of all that it represents. Henry James and Edith Wharton addressed the same conundrum more than a century ago. In a sense, not much has changed.

    For me, that is one of the most signficant parts of Netherland, one that most critics overlook. The central character chose to leave. In some ways, Diaz (who certainly was writing about New Jersey, not New York, when he was on the continent, but I still think the comparison is fair) reached much the same conclusion.

  45. I said this above in a reply to one of KevinfromCanada’s posts, but this blog entry is fabulous in the comments that it has inspired. Fascinating stuff.

  46. Joseph O’Neill, author of the dazzling book Netherland – don’t listen to John; he knows naaarthing – was on Newsnight yesterday evening discussing his book, cricket, Obama, cricket, and the use of cricket as a bridge between the immigrants from South Asia and the more native New Yorkers. Worth half a watch, but be sure to switch off at the end of the interview for otherwise you’ll find yourself assailed by a feeling of nausea as Micheal Gove starts gurning at you from the Review sofa.

  47. And not just Michael Gove, but you’ll also avoid Kwame Kwei-Armah, lest anyone should think the issue is right-wing neo-cons and not stupid people in general.

  48. Hm, Michael Gove’s quite enough though, Sam. When I see him I always think of Martin Amis’s description of his chess match with Nigel Short, and

    his round, bespectacled, full-lipped face. This face was not so much ageless as entirely unformed: you felt that it would still light up at the sight of a new chemistry set, or a choc-ice.

  49. Hey, just discovered this blog and I’m enjoying it. I loved Netherland and have read it three times so far. Being in the process of writing what I hope to be a work of serious fiction myself, I appreciate the painstaking process he took with his words. I am ruthless but can’t find a fault in the novel’s verbiage. The “plot,” or lack of a strong one, will be for many a thing of taste, but it didn’t bother me. I might say the novel seems to violate one of fiction’s cardinal rules, which is don’t make the hero passive. Hans largely is, yet this doesn’t hamper it for me; I guess rules are made to be broken.

    The first time I read it I liked Chuck the most. The second and third times I more appreciated the subtle rendering of Rachel, and her relationship with Hans. It’s easy for her to come off as a cold fish, and in some ways she is, but I also think a Duchman like Hans would be attracted to this independent and somewhat stoic streak in her. O’Neill starts their relationship in medias res so we see them when they’re already familiar with each other and their ways have in them a kind of shorthand. For us, the outsider, it may seem a bit dry as they already know each other, but I found this made their relationship very believable, solid and real.

    Anyway, I will be reading this blog a lot more, I think. On the subject of books one just can’t get into, I’m trying very much to like Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago, as I loved The Cave and (especially) The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, but so far it just won’t click.

    1. Oh, also thought I’d mention my amusement about the back cover of at least the US version (hardcover). It contains a raving quote from Vogue. Sally Singer is one of the top editors of said magazine, as well as O’Neill’s wife. The NYTimes also raved–and now Singer has gone over there as well as a fashion editor. Seems, excellent as the novel was, that the jury was a bit rigged.

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