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.

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.

The joys of fantasy and Romance

Patrick Kurp ponders why he doesn’t like fantasy, writing that “[It] feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children.” Maybe: but to my mind, it opens other avenues for looking at the world and goes places realism doesn’t. Good fantasy develops its own codes and limitations; it is different from and reflects our world. In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon says, “Now, games are important. They test us. They teach us comradeship. They’re fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say […] a lesson in civility.” I wouldn’t call fantasy a lesson in civility, but it often imparts, aside from pleasure, lessons in how to lead and organize one’s life. When teaching the LSAT, I often use the journey and confrontation plots in fantasy novels as metaphors. And if fantasy is a cheat, so too is metaphor, which takes one or multiple things and stands them in the place of others, as fantasy does.

It also inevitably returns to confront the ideals and problems of the society that produced it, as Northrop Frye argued in The Secular Scriptures. Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked to the societies that produce them, just as fiction more generally is. The power of fiction and fantasy is their ability to be rooted in those societies while simultaneously being able to transcend them to others. I have no experience in ancient Greece or Rome, but The Iliad and The Aeneid still speak to me. I have never set foot in Middle-earth, but it seems more real to me in some ways than South Ossetia, though I would never argue, obviously, that one is real and the other isn’t.

Still, the question of real and fake gets raised by this question and never satisfactorily answered, as it hasn’t been in literature or philosophy. Patrick writes, “I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.” To my mind, we’re not slumming it in another world, but sharpening our sense of this one through contrast in a subsidiary world, both part of and separate from ours. Fantasy is where the imagination can run wilder than it can in reality, and it is another configuration of reality in the mind, a separate microworld that breaks off from the main world in the mind of its holder. Think of it as an extension of the multiverse or parallel universe theories, only with fantasy itself as another world that mirrors ours. Those mirrors sometimes distort for effect, and if realism is a standard mirror, fantasy is the one that stretches, contorts, and makes us wonder at what we really think of ourselves. The best fantasy novels have rules of their own, some of which can be bent, and others broken, as they say in The Matrix. See our world in fantasy and fantasy in our world. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

And so the Middle Ages have remained, if not profession, my hobby—and a constant temptation: I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.

As said by Burlingame in The Sot-Weed Factor, “I grew so enchanted by the great Manchegan [Don Quixote] and his faithful squire as to lose all track of time and was rebuked by Captain Salmon for reporting late to the cook.” At its best, fantasy has this effect, almost as drugs or sex are wont to do. I think there’s a reason why children and teenagers are often drawn to fantasy, as it offers an relatively safe and accessible outlet for young people who feel powerless and constrained, or feel perceived constraint from parents and society. Another world offers solace and meaning, as it offers others symbolism and power. These sensations go far back in cultural time: some aspect of fantasy or fantastical journeys exist in numerous cultures, as Joseph Campbell argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of them and us are not Don Quixotes, who asks if we have “[…] read the annals and the histories of the England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur […]” The mistaken belief in fantasy as genuine reality is ridiculous, but the belief that we can see aspects of reality in fantasy is not. The prologue to Don Quixote more lays out the case for fantasy, and, more abstractly, literature itself:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.

One could also say, let the adolescent find a way forward and the adult meaning in experience, and let a strong story exist for the literal and subtle metaphors and symbols for the intellectual. Only very good fantasy, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, accomplishes these lofty goals, but only very few works of fiction pass the hundred year test and become that strange beast we call literature.

Defending fantasy and science fiction as literature might be odd given my lament in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters. But I only wrote that post because both cause pain when they fail to live up to literature’s ideals and their own possibility. One of my favorite passages from any book occurs when Tomás and a Martian encounter one another in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?”

Later, a character says, “If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good.” A dream isn’t, but it’s something, and inevitably leads us back toward reality, which leads us back to imagination in an endless circle of blending into different forms and shapes.

Fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, along with their forefather, Romance, are tastes not shared by all. Patrick avoids slamming fantasy to the extent he can given his dislike, and he flees that “ideologically rigid sack of theories.” I’ve tried to give as supple a theory and explanation as I can for the pleasures of fantasy done well, as the genre has long suffered disrespect it shouldn’t. One of the best essays on the subject is still Tolkien’s “On Faerie Stories,” which can be found in the collection The Tolkien Reader. This essay derives and and applies ideas from Tolkien’s work, which is still as complete a defense and analysis of the genre.


EDIT: See an addendum here.

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