Saturday, August 30, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (2)

Netherland is another novel using the events of 9/11 as a backdrop. We are still waiting for the great 9/11 novel, and it is saddening how many so far have been nothing more than ordinary domestic dramas given a sheen of importance by the artificial hook of those momentous events. Early in Netherland, the narrator says, of his relationship with his wife: ‘A banal state of affairs, yes – but our problems were banal, the stuff of women’s magazines.’ This, as I say, describes many 9/11 novels, with their focus on banality. But Netherland proves to be a different kind of story altogether and, while it isn’t the great 9/11 novel, it is still a good novel.

One of the curious things about current events since 9/11, with the now-hated (but then-supported) war in Iraq, and war in Afghanistan and the focus on the axis of evil, is that people feel politicised but do nothing about it. Compare that to the sixties, where a combination of causes – civil rights, Vietnam, gay rights, drugs etc – led to the counter-culture.

At one point in Netherland, the narrator writes:

For those under the age of forty-five it seemed that world events had finally contrived a meaningful test of their capacity for conscientious political thought. Many of my acquaintances, I realised, had passed the last decade or two in a state of intellectual and physical yearning for such a moment.

And yet, the narrator himself is resolutely apolitical. He sees both sides of the argument – pro-Bush and anti-Bush, and will not come down on one side or the other. His wife, Rachel, is more politicised, taking part in an anti-war demonstration, but that, too, is instructive. What happened to those anti-war demonstrations? They simply petered out. What demonstrations are taking place today, at a time when the public opinion is even more anti-war than it was at the time of the invasion. There is a long passage in Netherland about Rachel attending the demo:
She told me first about the huge anti-war rally that had taken in place in London two days before and how Jake [their son] had carried a NOT IN MY NAME placard. Next she told me, in the tone of a person discussing a grocery list, that she had definitely decided not to return to the United States [where Hans remains; the have split up], at least not until before the end of the Bush administration or any successor administration similarly intent on a military and economic domination of the world. It was no longer a question of physical security, she said, although that of course remained a factor. It was a question, rather, of not exposing Jake to an upbringing in an ‘ideologically diseased’ country, as she put it, a ‘mentally ill, sick, unreal’ country whose masses and leaders suffered from extraordinary and self-righteous delusions about the United States, the world, and indeed, thanks to the influence of the fanatical Evangelical Christian movement, the universe, delusions that had the effect of exempting the United States from the very rules of civilised and lawful and rational behaviour it so mercilessly sought to enforce on others. She stated, growing more and more upset, that we were at a crossroads, that a great power had ‘drifted into wrongdoing’, that her conscience permitted no other conclusion.

I think this is a fascinating observation. Rachel’s concern is not to expose her son to the ‘ideologically diseased’ US, which is ‘mentally sick’ and ‘unreal’ (a clear reference to Zizek there, I think). Is that not an extraordinarily self-centred way of approaching political debate?: she is saying ‘I will keep my family away from that evil’, rather than saying, as people did in the sixties, ‘this is evil and I will fight it’. I think, in this little episode, O’Neill has captured a significant truth about current moral and political attitudes in the US and the UK.

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