Netherland — Joseph O’Neill

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a puzzling novel whose comparisons to The Great Gatsby aren’t warranted; although the two share some superficial themes in the sense of making America, their dissimilar narrative structure separates them: in Netherland, the protagonist is the story, while in Gatsby the eponymous quasi-hero is always kept a level of remove from the reader. At a sufficient level of abstraction, the novels are comparable, much as a grapefruit and a pie are both foods, but in going too far toward generalities one loses the particulars upholding those generalities. One becomes the literary equivalent of an architecture astronaut.

Another qualification: “puzzling” is not necessarily a slander—Ulysses puzzled the first time through, and a novel that starts in confusion might end in brilliant harmony, like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. For Netherland, it connotes my uncertainty about how to evaluate a book so perilously treading the narrow path between profundity and random observation that I can’t ascertain which side it strays toward. This might be its great virtue. Unlike, say, Sleepless Nights, it is coherent; but unlike, say, The Name of the Rose, it doesn’t wear many of its meanings on its sleeves. When Netherland does, it is least successful, and within that least successful field is Rachel; she says, for example, “Darling, I’ve got to move on. You’ve got to move on. We can’t go on like this, waiting for something to happen.” She speaks in cliché when she’s not speaking in armchair psychologist.

This is especially problematic because Rachel is the primary female character in Netherland. She’s married to Hans. They have a son. Theirs are issues of marriage and family, and in another instance of separation from Gatsby, that novel’s hero has the concerns of adolescence: the yearning for the unavailable girl, the creation of identity via effort to make one’s self greater through bravado and material possessions, and the endless chase. Hans is a family man and a more active character than Nick Carraway—while the latter functions chiefly as a reporter and is the conduit through which Gatsby flows, Hans is a stronger character in his own right and imprints more of his personality and views on events. Granted, that personality is most often dour and depressed, but it is unmediated by another character. Rachel, although more independent than, say, Daisy, nonetheless shares Daisy’s flatness, and both reify Leslie Fiedler’s argument regarding the juvenile male character of American literature, made in Love and Death in the American Novel.

At one point, Rachel tells Hans:

“You were just happy to play with [Chuck]. Same thing with America. You’re like a child. You don’t look beneath the surface.”
My reaction to her remark is to think, Look beneath Chuck’s surface? For what?

The dialog not involving Rachel is usually much better than this and sometimes very good, but Rachel does bring out O’Neill’s tendency to play with Big Themes explicitly, which is an unfortunate trait in a book often much more subtle than this. Hans observes this, but the observation and self-knowledge doesn’t excuse the habit any more, if it ever did.

Later on, Hans recalls the sensation of staring at the sky as a boy, and in simple language conveys the mystery of existence and pondering existence, creating a powerful moment in sharp contrast to Rachel’s eye-rolling. Dropping from story into philosophy is another separation from Gatsby, which doesn’t tend to have this strain between plot and ideas, perhaps because Nick isn’t as strong a personality as Hans and Gatsby focuses on the unattainable Daisy rather than the narrator.

Still, the persistence of the Gatsby allusions are notable, but the novel gets past them with ideas of its own, and some of its praise is not undeserved. In the New Yorker, James Wood wrote:

Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel “Netherland” (Pantheon; $23.95) a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. Cricket, like every sport, is an activity and the dream of an activity, badged with random ideals, aspirations, and memories.

A large fictional achievement? Perhaps. Its academic and critical appeal is apparent from the subtle narrative shifts, as if the ground moves up or down a few degrees as you walk on it, the cultural intersections, and the frequent bouts of existential despair. Granted, I’m half-mocking such appeal, but I can see Netherland’s fit from the timeline shifts and the Big Ideas bursting forth in a way that comes perilously close to destroying the story vessel carrying them. Skepticism about conventional ideas, even once-unconventional ideas that have since become conventional, appears: a “shrink […] subscribed to the fine, progressive notion that each day we have lived is a kind of possession and, if we are its alert custodian, brings us ever closer to knowledge of the slipperiest kind.” Chuck Ramkissoon, a foreigner and sometime friend of Hans’, is a “Magic Negro” who acts as a liminar while becoming a repository for much of Hans’ musings about the nature of the world and success.

Their relationship is one of the central beams in Netherland, but not the only one. It differs from Gatsby, All the King’s Men, and Moby Dick, in that the first-person protagonist, rather than being drawn taunt between telling his own story and telling the story of the great man around him, is fundamentally the center of the novel’s universe. It also allows a narrator somewhat bigger than those of Ishmael or Carraway, which is a blessing and nurse. The discussion of big themes is calibrated at such a high plane that oxygen grows short, but that’s not to say that the novel isn’t full of amusing and witty comments, my favorite being “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” American college students prefer the same style. Hans says, “I was young. I was not much extracted from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent world conspires to place us as children.” Another line freights cricket with meaning:

I fell into that state of self-absorption that afflicts the waiting batsman as he studies the bowling for signs of cunning and untoward movement and, trying to recall what it means to be at bat, trying to make knowledge out of memory, replays in his mind bygone shots splendid and shaming.

Not only batsmen, Hans, and not only in cricket. The temptation to try and make further knowledge of this novel from the memory of my reading is strong but I will retire here, thinking that this is a novel whose flavor, like that of many chilis, is better the second time through.

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