by Joseph O'Neill
Netherland arrives in a blaze of promotion and controversy. Garlanded with ecstatic reviews and bearing the Richard and Judy seal of approval, O'Neill's tale of a Dutch cricketing enthusiast in turn of this century New York was chosen by many literary figures as their 'Book of the Year' for 2008. But it was when Zadie Smith used Netherland as one example of the sickness at the heart of contemporary fiction in her article for The New York Review of Books last November, that my interest was piqued. Book blogs took up her thread, reviewers quoted Smith in their own articles, the oraboris of literary life truly gorged upon itself. What is it about this slim volume, unexceptional in its plotting, unassuming in its scope, that provoked such disparate feelings in its readers? In what way can it be said to signal the 'existential crisis' of this brand of novel?
The story concerns Hans van den Broek, a successful equities analyst for a merchant bank, married to the quintessentially English Rachel, living in New York with their young son in the aftermath of 9/11. The novel's timeline veers from the immediate present to the near past, via Hans' own childhood in Holland, in such a way that the reader is pressed to remind themselves where and when they are, sometimes in mid-paragraph. This structure avoids any detailed account of the attacks on the Twin Towers, concentrating on the shadow of their absence. So vague is the event itself, that it is a shock when Hans reacts with unconcealed anger to an insensitive remark about it being 'not such a big deal' at a London dinner party some time later. O'Neill handles his big subject obliquely, chipping at the monolith with small moments and blunted memories. The result is a suitably symbolic centre from which to hang his novelist's wares.
Thus, we get Chuck Ramikssoon, an entrepreneur from Trinidad who uses Hans as an unwitting driver for his illegal gambling runs, and dominates the narrative with his colourful tales and impossible charm. We have the specter of Hans' broken marriage, though as the story is told in flashback, we already know that the marriage rift heals. We have the eccentric residents of the Chelsea Hotel, where Hans lives alone for several years. And we have cricket, the game that unites Hans and Chuck, that saves Hans from the lost weekends without his family and that provides a moral counterpoint to the attacks of 9/11. It is Chuck's ambition to build a New York Cricket Club with international status and so to start 'a new chapter in US history' but Chuck's own nefarious activities destroy both the dream and the dreamer. Hans persists in seeing Chuck as a lovable rogue until Chuck gives him no choice but to look deeper, and it is this failure of imagination that lies at the troubling centre of the book. Since it is written in the first person, at what point did Hans mutate from the man who refused to 'look below the surface', a man who agrees with his wife's definition of himself as a childlike rationalist, become the poetic author of an acute observation?
This is principally a problem of voice. Hans is the narrator and with no device to explain his account, we are asked to believe that the swooping passages of lyrical description come from the same man who we have learned to think of as a plain speaking Dutchman with a poor grasp of idiomatic English. When Zadie Smith criticizes Netherland for seeming 'perfectly done', it is this dissonance that appears at fault. O'Neill signals his own concerns with his format 'You might say, if you're the type prone to general observations that New York City insists on memory's repetitive mower...' and there are several times when the self-conscious nature of the introspection threatens to topple the whole novel into a tired creative writing exercise. But Netherland is more than the sum of the parts, it has enough wit and beauty to challenge its detractors. All novels require a suspension of disbelief, Netherland just asks you to be constantly aware of the trick.