I can sympathise, to an extent, with DoveGreyReader who approached Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with trepidation given the tag ‘post 9-11 masterpiece’ (the Observer) that has been widely used by enthusiastic reviewers.
It’s a problematic tag for any novel, but particularly so in this case given that the novel scarcely concerns itself with the attacks or their aftermath. That’s not to say that 9/11 or Iraq are not mentioned, they are at various points,and the novel is studiously dated starting in 2006 and running backwards to 1999 when the book’s narrator Hans Van Den Broek moves with his wife to New York.
One obvious reading of the novel views the emotional paralysis that overtakes Hans, the inability to make decisions that sees him separated from his wife and alone “sad for the first time in my life” to be a result of 9/11, his condition a metaphor for America after the attacks. A valid reading, perhaps, but it’s just one reading of a subtle book.
Similarly a reading that focusses on the similarities and contrasts between Netherland and The Great Gatsby, while interesting and supported by the text ultimately leaves out as much as it takes in.
These readings take in nothing of the book’s title, for example – or the various passages set in Holland. Centring on 9/11 or The Great Gatsby leaves out the pivotal pieces dealing with the relationship between Hans and his mother. It neglects the fact that the story is not solely situated in New York, but rather begins and ends in London. It substitutes a crude scaffold in the place of a narrative arc which focusses on how Hans loses and regains his wife (who, incidentally sees almost everything through the prism of post 9/11 global politics and is the least sympathetic character as a result).
For me, I was charmed by the novel’s opening pages, where O’Neill confidently reveals all the cards on the table, discarding the element of suspense that a less able novelist would have cautiously dealt out to as a guarantee for page turning. We’re told, for example, within the first three opening pages that Hans has left New York, that he’s with his wife and son, and that Chuck Ramkisoon is dead – the victim of a murder. These facts out in the open, the invitation is to read on, and I did, with increasing pleasure at the intelligent meditations on boundaries (cricketing and otherwise), love, and community.
“In my day – age qualifies me to use the phrase! – Holland was a providential country. There seemed little point in an individual straining excessively for or against the upshots arranged on his behalf, which had been thoughtfully conceived to benefit him from the day he was born to the day he died and hardly required explanation. There was accordingly not much call for a dreamy junior yours truly to ponder connections. One result, in a temperament such as my own, was a sense that mystery is treasurable, even necessary: for mystery in such a crowded, see-through little country, is, among other things, space. It was in this way, it may be supposed, that I came to step around in a murk of my own making, and to be drifted away from my native place, and in due course to rely on Rachel as a human flashlight. To give an example, she was the one, all those years ago, who brought cinema and food to my attention. Undoubtedly I had already watched movies and eaten lunch; but I hadn’t located them in the so-called scheme of things”
“‘What this means,’ Chuck said, raising his voice as murmurs and cracks and chuckles began to run through his audience, ‘what this means is, we have an extra responsibility to play the game right. We have to prove ourselves. We have to let our hosts see that these strange looking guys are up to something worthwhile. I say “see”. I don’t know why I use that word. Every summer the parks of this city [New York] are taken over by hundreds of cricketers but somehow nobody notices. It’s like we’re invisible. Now that’s nothing new, for those of us who are black or brown. As for those who are not’ – Chuck acknowledged my presence with a smile – ‘you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I say that I sometimes tell people, You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black’ “
If the novel does fall down, it seems to me, it is in occasional intrusions for example on page 166
“Nobody understands better than I that this was a strange and irresponsible direction in which to take one’s life. But I’m reporting what happened”
This strange ‘I’m reporting what happened’ throws a spanner in the works it’s one of the few moments where Hans steps out of the story as it were, to explain why he’s telling the story. It’s unecessary – we’ve already read as far as pg 166 by this stage, with no qualms over the narrative voice so confidently used. The effect of it is like a gear slipping. These moments don’t ruin the novel, and are but a momentary distraction in a remarkably graceful read, but distractions nonetheless.
All the more strange when you read O’Neill’s review of Philip Roth’s Everyman
“Let’s use a noun I’ve never used before: masterpiece. Whereas Roth’s prize-laden recent fictions are a tad manipulative, in Everyman there is never any sense of a novelist trying to write a novel. Every sentence is urgent, essential, almost nonfictional. The sophistication and indirection forced on practically every writer are replaced by a straightforwardness of, yes, masterly authority. The text so thoroughly embodies, rather than displays, expertise that only after I’d finished reading did I realize that the protagonist’s name had been withheldis therefore that rarest of literary achievements: a novel that disappears as it progresses, leaving in one’s hands only the matters of life and death it describes.”
That moment that Hans steps out of the narrative reminds one, fleetingly, that rather than being inside his head you are inside a novel. So by O’Neill’s exacting standards it falls short of a masterpiece. No matter – Roth has written more than twenty-five novels, while this is O’Neill’s third. Bringing the critical pitch down a notch may be just what this intelligent, moving book needs.
In closing, it’s worth noting that DoveGreyReader with whose concerns we started read the book through – while of the other booker longlist novels she gave up on Rushdie, Diaz, and Arnold.