Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

It was perhaps apt that I read this award-winning novel by Joseph O’Neill immediately after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Both books deal with the personal, domestic consequences of 9/11 and America’s subsequent forays into armed philanthropy in the Muslim world. But whereas Franzen’s novel is expansive, shattershot and, frankly, overwritten, O’Neill’s book is lean, taut and tightly focused on its thesis. This goes a long way to making it a superior read.

Netherland tells the story of Hans van den Broek, a financial analyst working for an unnamed bank in New York City whose wife Rachel leaves him and flees back to London with their young son Jake in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Hans spends every other weekend commuting between the two cities in order to see his son and try repairing his broken marriage. But on the weekends when he isn’t doing this, he’s busy rekindling his interest in the game of cricket, which is having a resurgence in the city of New York. He gets roped in with an ambitious but shadowy fellow immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon who is looking to turn cricket into big business for the city, but doing so using shady connections.

What struck me about this book was the way that O’Neill creates a rich and compelling tale without relying on anything resembling a traditional narrative arc. Indeed, Netherland oddly reminded me of certain Canadian novels of the 1970s that rely heavily on character and theme at the expense of a consistent “plotline” that runs through the book from beginning to end. This isn’t an insult; it is, in fact, Netherland’s great strength. Because it relies on an episodic structure, the novel is able to use a kind of literary pointillism to draw attention to its broader themes.

Some of the book’s ideas are more obvious than others. The most observable one is this notion of cricket as a civilizing force in the international community, forcing global rivals to spend long stretches of time together on the pitch in the spirit of sportsmanship. And, of course, this civilizing force is thus corrupted in the post-9/11 world by Ramkissoon’s scheming aspirations for the game. Other explorations are less easy to spot. I’m thinking specifically of the notion of men being inexplicably abandoned by the women they love, a theme I’m exploring in my own new novel. In Netherland, this fate isn’t reserved solely for Hans; it happens to at least two other men he meets through his involvement in the cricket club. One jokes that he’s actually happy his wife left him, because it means he can now smoke as much as he likes; in fact, he’s smoking five packs a day. Another man, however, is rendered practically incapacitated by his wife’s departure from his life, and it’s left to Hans, comically, to comfort him in his hour of sadness.

The episodic structure also allows O’Neill to pull off some brilliant one-off scenes. There’s a hilariously Kafkaesque episode involving Hans at the DMV trying to get an American driver’s license. The scene is played for its sheer frustrating genius, but then concludes with this astounding passage that ties it all back to the novel’s larger project:

And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon. As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

Netherland is by no means a perfect novel. I found it, for example, highly improbable that Hans – with his high-powered career and its concomitant salary and status – would have nearly every weekend free to either play cricket or jaunt off to London to visit his son. I don’t know many financial analysts, but I suspect few would have such a succession of Saturdays and Sundays to spare. Hans also narrates his tale in a kind of elevated, literary diction, which I found unlikely for someone so ensconced in the business world, despite his background in the classics.

But these are small quibbles in a book bursting with so much brilliance. Netherland is both engrossing and unconventional, timely and timeless. It explores one man’s private, temporary loss in a world experiencing a great, more permanent loss. It shows both an expert, big-picture vision and a careful eye to the small, domestic details that comprise our deepest experiences.

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