Saturday, August 30, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (1)

It’s very difficult to get a handle on Netherland, so much so that it must be deliberate. It’s running theme is playing cricket in the US (yet the dustjacket features an iceskater, a sport which doesn’t feature at all in the book. Cricket is not an American sport, of course, and those who play it are all outsiders, immigrants from the West Indies, India and the other cricket playing countries. The main character and narrator is a Dutch man (the Netherlands is also a big cricketing nation) who lived in England and married an English woman but moved to New York. Another outsider. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel because their own place was uninhabitable after 9/11, giving more rootlessness. The Chelsea Hotel is also home to a rich cavalcade of odd characters, including the Angel, who wears wings which become progressively grubbier, mirroring his slow mental and social decline.

And it is told in a bewildering stream-of-consciousness style, with flashbacks inside flashbacks inside flashbacks, and the main narrative strands – the MC’s marital breakdown and relationship with the enigmatic Chuck (along with largely unexplained reminiscences about The Hague and the MC’s mother) – intermingled in a seemingly random form.

Disconnection seems to be the theme of the novel. When his wife and son leave him to go back to England, Hans discovers cricket, which is a vibrant underworld, or Netherworld, in uptown New York. This takes him back to his childhood and allows him to assess and re-assess his life through the prism of experience. Any decent American novel is going to tackle the American Dream, and that is what Netherland is all about. It is peopled by dreamers – Hans, in particular, a man seemingly lacking any sense of duty, but also the array of minor characters and, of course, Chuck, the arch schemer and dreamer who proposes to build a magnificent cricket stadium in a rundown area of New York which will attract international cricket fixtures.

Alas, though, America is a country in crisis in the early twenty-first century. As a nation, its dream appears to be on hold, with doubt and anxiety becoming new national traits. There is a seamier side to the American dream, and in Netherworld this is represented by Chuck, who, as the story unfolds, becomes a darker and more enigmatic character. In the end, the nature of his vocation is spelled out in graphic detail, and his mysterious death, which opens the novel and is the hook around which Hans’ reminiscences hangs, becomes more explicable.

Does it work? This is on the longlist for the Booker, and I expect it will make the shortlist too. Is it a good book?

There are a few problems with it. Firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, the timeframe is so convoluted it becomes dizzying. There is one section where the main character is with the Angel character on a roof during a power black out. This reminds him of an episode from his childhood and we are given two pages of catching fish in Holland. In the middle of this flashback to childhood we are taken forward to a flashback to when his wife fell in love with him. Then we were taken back to the childhood flashback. Then, for a short paragraph, forward to the wife again. And then we were returned to the Angel on the roof. And all of this, remember, in a story which is built as a reminiscence about Chuck. In the end, it all feels too messy. It is the second novel I’ve read recently with manic time shifts (the other is Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter) and in this case it definitely impedes enjoyment.

Secondly, the characterisation causes difficulties. I don’t agree with commentators who suggest characters have to be likeable, but I do think that at least one of them has to have at least one redeeming feature. And I’m not sure anyone here does. The main character is fickle and feckless. The wife is hectoring. Chuck is alternately an impossible dreamer and a violent gangster. In the end, you have to ask ‘do I care about any of these people?’ And, in this case, the answer is no.

Finally, and the least of the problems, but it is still a problem, is the language. I have seen O’Neill’s language compared to John Banville, and while that is unfair and he is nowhere near as poor a writer as Banville, there is still a touch of Banvillitis about the writing. Some writers just need to understand the meaning of restraint. For example, there is a beautiful passage where the main character describes his growing disenchantment with America, which includes the phrase ‘the inverted obscurity of the afternoon’. I’m sorry, but that is meaningless. It sounds lovely, but it means nothing, and it has the effect of spoiling some beautiful writing either side of it. My writing tutor always talked of ‘killing your babies’ – going through your writing and excising those phrases that you love but that stick out and get in the way of the flow of the story. Writers like Banville, conversely, are in thrall to their babies, and I feel that O’Neill could uesfully learn to kill a few of his.

But overall, this is a good novel. It says some interesting things about modern culture and what it is to live in America at the moment, at a time when the dream is becoming soured but which – as proved by the responses to 9/11 and the huge electric black-out, has not been destroyed. There is hope, but you have to work for it.

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