Netherland – Joseph O’Neill

13 July 2008
First section…
… to about a third of the way through. So far I’m not enchanted by it…. Maybe I’ll work out why that is. The narrator is Hans, a Dutchman and – flipping heck – a cricket player. He’s discovered that New York, where he’s working in the sort of job you get in books like this – one that gets the main character to where the author needs him to be – is full of cricketers. But you need to know where to look, on improvised or forgotten pitches nobody ever notices. Just as nobody notices that there are (we find out near the end of this section) half a million Afro-Caribbeans, and a burgeoning population of people from the Indian subcontinent. Well, who’d have thought it?

But I’m jumping the gun. Near the start, in a framing device that places the main action of the novel in flashback, we find out two things: Hans is still married to the woman it looks like he might be splitting up with when the flashback gets under way; and somebody he met in New York has been found dead. The marital separation is to get Hans in New York on his own and, to use a word he uses himself, lost; the dead man with the novelty name (Chuck Ramkissoon, since you ask) is the hook to get us interested.

One thing I like is the way O’Neill shows the New York you don’t see in films or black and white photographs, where even the crime is somehow glamorous. Usually this New York is just behind somewhere that we have heard of: the Chelsea Hotel – far seedier than you ever realised – or at the wrong end of Broadway. The drifting ice on the Hudson River isn’t picturesque like the ice of Hans’s rose-coloured Dutch childhood, it’s sordid and a kind of polluted grey. And Ground Zero – yes, this is a post 9-11 story, hence the early departure of Hans’s jittery wife and tiny son – is nothing but a mess.

However. The descriptions often get in the way for me. We’re supposed to believe a stockbroker (or whatever he is) is such a skilled – and often self-consciously literary – travel writer. The fact that this is clearly O’Neill putting his all into evoking places he’s evidently familiar with himself just adds to the alienation. Or, occasionally, he goes for self-indulgently over-educated vocabulary: the bit at the bottom of p60 (‘no doubt I was drawn to a false syllogism involving the nothingness of my life and the somethingness of doing’) made we want to be sick. However, again: there’s a description of a train journey through upstate New York that is not only simply good travel writing; O’Neill uses Hans’s Dutchness to help him to evoke the early settlers of that land as the trackless forests take him back centuries. (It reminded me of that extraordinary closing passage in The Great Gatsby, in which Fitzgerald invokes the same settlers to point out how far we’ve come since those innocent days.)

But for me it isn’t Hans’s writerly take on the sights of New York that appeals. Nah, it’s Chuck, the novel’s representative of – what else? – the American Dream, who engages. But that’s his job, and in the last few pages of this first section O’Neill throws everything he has into making him a charismatic grotesque: the immigrant who embraces capitalism and the Dream so wholeheartedly he almost fetishises the bald eagle. (In case we didn’t get it, O’Neill has him remind Hans that you find the eagle on American money.) Chuck has a scheme – of course he does – to combine American capitalist principles with the same immigrant demographic Hans has been discovering: convert disused land into a cricketing arena. What could go wrong?

Hmm. The fact that the book opens with news of Chuck’s death is a signal – too obvious a signal? – that America ain’t as innocent as it used to be. It’s along time since those Dutch settlers. (And now I think about it: is Hans simply Nick – an even more invisible first-person narrator – to Chuck’s Gatsby?)

18 July
Second section…
…seems to be more of the same, but now concentrating on Hans’s growing friendship with Chuck during his year or so in New York without his wife and kid. Hans is still Nick to Chuck’s Gatsby: he’s the quiet, non-judgmental observer, while Chuck – it becomes clear as this section goes on – is, like Gatsby, routinely involved in shady business, working closely (and this might just be a coincidence) with a Jewish partner who stays in the background. Hans is so non-judgmental he doesn’t mind being seen with Chuck, even acting, by some sleight of hand on Chuck’s part, as his occasional chauffeur. He chooses not to recognise that he’s lending legitimacy to what Chuck is doing, offering the excuse that he keeps the different facets of his life compartmentalised. This is a crap excuse, obviously, and I wonder if O’Neill will punish him for it before the end of the book. We know from the opening of the novel that Hans is back in Britain. Maybe he’s been deported? Or is that too dramatic a fate for Hans? He seems too undemonstrative, too – what? – underdrawn for any such thing.

These are the nether regions of Brooklyn – pun definitely intended – and Chuck is in some deep water. For instance, we know there are Koreans and Chinese involved – never the good guys in novels involving crime – and near the end of the section Chuck makes sure Hans witnesses him and his partner roughing up an awkward customer. It’s enough to make Hans walk out of Chuck’s life …. It’s only a pity that the reader doesn’t get as clear a picture of what’s going on as Hans does: it doesn’t come as the vertiginous overturning of our views of Chuck that it obviously represents for Hans.

If this isn’t exactly an hommage to Gatsby, there are enough parallels to make it seem deliberate. They’re both outsiders, they’re plausible and in their own ways they’re romantics. I suppose the main difference is the objects of their dreams: Daisy on the one hand, a struggle for the soul of America on the other, according to Chuck in a speech just before the roughing up scene Hans doesn’t quite witness. Chuck thinks he can do it through cricket, by turning a ruined airfield into something that will bring quarrelling nations together. His speech, near the end of this section, spells out the symbolism of the transformation of the derelict airfield that we’ve followed throughout the spring and summer: a ruined, corrupted America can be cleansed, made hopeful again by this immigrant who buys into what the natives – themselves the descendants of immigrants, but ever more distantly – no longer believe. Hans doesn’t believe it either. At the heart of the scheme lie the murky imperatives of a capitalism; the violence he witnesses later the same day brings home the point that Chuck the visionary finances his vision through the sorts of criminal activity that have always corrupted the Dream. It’s exactly what Nick discovers about Gatsby.

This section is full of cricket. I suppose one reason is to make Chuck’s crucial speech sound plausible. For a start, the reader has to know something about cricket, and its history in America. Then, obviously, it’s the only point of contact between Hans and Chuck… and it’s the only point of contact between Hans, lost without his family, and his own past. It’s the novel’s quirkiest talking-point (and selling-point, I suppose, its USP) that a Dutchman lost in America is comforted by this of all games. So O’Neill makes a big thing of it. Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, Hans is happy to spend pages on what are essentially lectures: lessons about how it’s played and, more importantly in this novel, its long history in America.

Meanwhile…. We have Hans. The problem for me is that while Nick allows himself to fade into the background in Fitzgerald‘s novel, Hans doesn’t in this one. We get a lot of his story in this section, and I’m just not bothered enough about it. His cricketing life, and his contact with Chuck, are described as a respite from thoughts about work and his tottering marriage. Unfortunately neither of these is explored enough to make them seem real. His work is boring anyway, but Hans (and Joseph O’Neill) treat the marriage like background scenery, cursorily represented like the back-projections in old movies. This is passive Hans, simply letting it happen. But but but. It doesn’t make for great drama, and it doesn’t do anything for the rounding out of Rachel’s character or the believability of Hans’s relationship with his young son. In the short episodes when Hans mentions Rachel – he flies back to England to see her every fortnight and indulge in sugary bonding sessions with his boy – we are more likely to get insights into Hans’s relationship with Chuck than with his wife. And on one such visit she tells Hans he is exoticising Chuck.

This is exactly right – and it works as a critique of what O’Neill is doing with Hans’s (or with O’Neill’s own) New York experience. If in Section 1 we get hidden corners revealed, in Section 2 we get New York as utterly foreign. Once, when Hans gets off the subway train too early (through a clunkily convenient attack of panic or forgetfulness) he emerges into a Brooklyn transformed into a fragment of Africa or the Caribbean. Bizarrely, even the notorious noisiness of New York seems not to reach this far. O’Neill is doing at least two different things here: he’s offering us more of his highly readable travel writing – he obviously loves the unexpected sights and sensations he’s experienced as an ex-pat in New York – and he’s adding another layer to the complex stratification of New York. We’ve had the Dutch settlers in Section 1, which O‘Neill is at pains to make poignant through his character’s nationality. (It’s the only reason I can think of, apart from the play on words it allows O’Neill in the title, for making him a Dutchman; O‘Neill has reminded us occasionally in this section of New York‘s Dutch origins.) We’ve had passing references to the layers added by each wave of immigrants – Jewish, Chinese, Italian – the ones everybody knows about. On top of all that we’ve had frequent insights into the ex-pat experience, in which sights are refracted through Hans’s childhood memories of Holland. Now we’ve got this new level, and O’Neill wants us to receive it as a kind of shock. This, he wants to make plain, is new stuff, stuff we don’t know. When Hans emerges from the wrong subway station, a mural has transformed it into a jungle and the streets outside could be in Trinidad or Beijing. The way O’Neill makes strange a city we thought we knew about is the most engaging and memorable aspect of the novel so far for me.

20 July
The last section
This takes Hans back to Britain. Oddly – and it’s one of the novel’s less convincing aspects – he’s never disorientated in Britain. In Highgate he’s back home. This section brings the focus on to Hans, and his relationship with Rachel and their son. We already know from the previous section that a) Rachel has a new man in her life before Hans leaves New York and b) now, two years after his return, they’re having marriage guidance counselling. And c), while I’m counting, I’m still not bothered. The things that made the novel interesting in the middle section – a New York made strange and a colourful character who just is strange – are sidelined. So it isn’t Gatsby after all.

I still don’t know why the marriage was the rocks. At the time it seemed like a device, like Hans’s job: something to get him living on his own, without money worries, in New York. But the last section makes it clear that O’Neill has some Important Stuff to get through. I’m not that convinced that the danger was enough to take the gloss off New York for Rachel. O’Neill wants us to believe that she buys into the more or less universal belief that there’ll be another 9/11-style attack, and yet… we don’t get much of a sense that this is a 9/11 novel: we never hear anybody talking about it. Ok, we’ve had a brief glimpse of Ground Zero, Hans and his family had to move to the Chelsea Hotel to be out of danger (so it’s terribly disruptive for the marriage – try to keep up) and, most iconically – the scene is straight from one of those glamorous posters O’Neill avoided in the first section – on the closing page of the novel is a remembered vision of sunset reflected from the twin towers. (I’ll come back to that.) But – and I only realised this after finishing – none of the main characters is a native New Yorker. This must be deliberate on O’Neill’s part – he didn’t have to make the ‘angel’ in the hotel Turkish, for instance – but it blunts the effect. Hans tells a Doubting Thomas Brit that for New Yorkers 9/11 really was a big deal – big enough to make him leave the dinner party he‘s at – but I didn’t believe it particularly.

No, O’Neill wants the final section to be the other side of an arch for Hans, one that holds up the whole structure. Only in the middle section when (to change the metaphor) Hans was alone and adrift, did the marriage seem remote in more than a literal sense. Which is why I then thought the novel was about Chuck. In fact, I was missing something – and I blame O’Neill for this – and that was Hans’s need of his family. The clue is that soupy stuff about the boy, ‘my son’ as he insists on calling him, which raises its head from time to time while Hans is still in New York.

I mean it about the arch structure. First, there’s the framing device at either end: the novel begins and ends with the family in its strong (presumably) 2006 state. Then, inside that frame, there’s the next bit of the bridge on either side: the marriage in deep shit. In the first section it’s Rachel’s dissatisfaction with New York and with Hans, neither of which I found particularly convincing; in the third section we have the reconciliation – which apparently comes about because her new bloke chucks her. (O’Neill doesn’t fill in any of this back story. It seems like another device, one to throw them together just as the events in the first section pulled them apart. The scene in which Hans, after having it confirmed that Rachel isn‘t fucking the other bloke any more, and therefore Hans can get in there instead, is grotesque.) In this reading, the middle section becomes a kind of keystone. By the end of it Hans realises that the only relationship he’s formed during his time away from his family is a sham. He should have been listening to the pull of blood.

I’ve changed my mind. It’s not an arch, but the ebb and flow of a tide. Tide in: happy family. Tide out: adrift like flotsam. Except…. The image, which O’Neill uses as another framing device – it happens in both directions – is of a virtual flight through space via Google Maps. The first time: from here to there in a great arc. The second time: from there to here, slowing down the trajectory and homing in on, well, home. Maybe I will stick with the arch after all.

Where was I? The importance of family. This is only made really clear at the very end. (Thanks to Phil for this.) In the last few lines of the novel O’Neill takes us on another rising/falling trajectory, literal this time, on the London Eye. All three are there as a family, and at the zenith the boy points to something and excitedly urges Hans to look. But Hans doesn’t look at the view, he looks at his son: what is important to him is that his son has taken over now, he’s the one looking out with hope. But then, that’s what the next generation is for: a page or so back, Hans was the younger generation. He tells us of a trip he made on the Staten Island ferry with his mother – which is when we get the iconic image of the twin towers in the radiant sunset. As he’d looked at this vision of promise and hope, his mother was looking at him. There’s a terrible irony of course: now we know what the burning light portended. But that must be O’Neill’s point: as one generation gets pummelled by events, a new one is ready to hope afresh. Hmm. I think I want to be sick. Somehow, I don’t feel O’Neill has earned this moment. Like so many other aspects of this novel, it works when you separate it out and examine it – but somehow as you read it gets lost in the noise of all the other stuff….

…And for me that’s the difficulty throughout. It’s a novel of really interesting strands, almost any one of which could have been explored far more fully than it is. I was fooled into thinking it was a novel about Chuck; it wasn’t, but it could have been. Just as it might have been a travel piece about the strangeness of New York behind the stage sets we recognise; or a novel about the experience of the latest influx of immigrants; or about the unexpected survival of cricket in New York; or about how crucial families are; or…. It’s kind of all these things and none, as though O’Neill wants to explore everything he’s experienced as an ex-pat and, well, does so. But you can’t write three or four (or five) novels in the space of one. For me, most of the strands remain just that: separate and thin. Only the (I suppose) documentary sections – the immigrants’ creation of a new New York (if that doesn’t sound too Judge Dredd), the history and survival of cricket in America – are as fully explored as I’d want them to be. Almost every aspect of it as a fiction – the development of the characters, the trajectories of the key relationships, O’Neill’s key theme of family life – is, ultimately, unsatisfactory.

Footnote 1: the novel’s title
O’Neill definitely wants to peel back (or dig back down through) the different layers of settlers in New York. He goes back as far as the first Dutch settlers and, as I’ve already suggested, makes his narrator Dutch for that reason. As he journeys upstate in the first section he feels the pull of memory from the Dutch place names… so Netherland refers punningly to their country. At the same time it means ‘the land beneath’, the land before settlers, as Hans sees on the same journey. A third meaning, which O’Neill refers to explicitly in the final section, refers to the ‘nether’ world inhabited by Chuck and his associates. A fourth: the hidden world nobody notices, of new immigrants and the cultures (including cricket) that they bring with them. All of these ’nether’ worlds are invisible, until we look.

Footnote 2
Like O’Neill, Fitzgerald allows history to begin with the Dutch. (I would imagine some Native Americans, only very cursorily mentioned in Netherland, might have a few words to say about this.) Fitzgerald also offers a vision of what hope is before human events fuck everything up. Except he’s more honest about it at the end of The Great Gatsby:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. 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. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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