Saturday, July 5, 2008

Creating The Centre That Holds

Joseph O’Neill
Pantheon, 2008
Hardcover, 256 pages

I loved Netherland. Joseph O’Neill is a master of the craft of fiction at its most magical—not in the way of John Banville or Doug Self, for example, by calling attention to his own talents at prestidigitation, but by making them invisible. The insights of Hans van den Broek, O’Neill’s narrator in this novel, into the lives of family and friends, as well as those for whom he must imagine lives—his co-workers and his fellow denizens of the Chelsea Hotel, for example—are brilliant enough to cast light on the experiences of all of us, as are the webs he weaves to show how all lives in all times may be connected to one another in unexpected ways.

In essence, Netherland is a story about a man whose wife leaves him in the physical and emotional upheavals that follow the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City. Van den Broek was born in Holland, where he grew up in a relatively bucolic setting, doted upon by his mother, becoming, among other things, an avid and—we gather—fairly skilled player of the complex, drawn-out game of cricket. His wife Rachel is a native of London, where as an adult van den Broek has established a solid career in equities analysis. They have moved together to NYC on the only kind of lark that could meet the requirements of a financial analyst–both of them are capable of earning excellent livings, they can afford to live where they want to live (TriBeCa), and NYC is not so foreign to them that they are unable to easily adapt. But then dawns the morning of 9/11 and by day’s end everything that is not dead or destroyed is fractured—including the relationship between Hans and Rachel. Their apartment is near Ground Zero, and they move into a suite in the Chelsea Hotel during the ensuing clean-up; it is from those quarters that their fractures become palpable, and Rachel decides—for political as well as emotional reasons—that she must leave New York.

Rachel takes their son back to her parents’ home in London; Hans stays in New York, hoping his family will return and everything will go back the way it was, and in the meantime flying back and forth for unsatisfactory visits to London every other weekend. He lives out the times between his trips in a state of rage at Rachel and his circumstances, and a kind of fog (a “neverland,” if you will) in which the importance of the family, career and future he has so painstakingly constructed collapse into meaninglessness. By happenstance rather than design, he becomes part of a pickup team of primarily West Indian cricket aficionados, who bring their own rules and expectations for the game –most of which are substandard according to van den Broek’s “old world” expectations for space and greenery. Based on their mutual love for cricket, and despite their vastly different childhood associations with it, van den Broek develops an odd friendship with a Trinidadian umpire named Chuck Ramkissoon, a doomed blend of small-criminal-mindedness, charm, and overwhelmingly naïve optimism regarding his potential to attain fame and fortune on American soil.

I have read several reviews of Netherland that described it as reflecting a post-9-11 world view among North Americans and Britons that is characterized by despair if not utter hopelessness. These reviewers interpret the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage, and its subsequent resumption on vastly different terms (less passionate, more resigned)—not to mention his ‘descent’ into disillusionment with the American Dream as personified by Ramkissoon—as reflecting a resignation and diminishment of expectation on the part of thinking society as a whole.

I disagree. While it is true that this novel portrays a new way of looking at reality than has traditionally been the case in my experience, either in the real world or in literary fiction, to me the perspective fashioned by its author is full of hope, and grounded in reality rather than strung by fragile threads on airy dreams. The confrontation during which van den Broek speaks the “truth” about Ramkissoon, calling him on his fabrications, dishonesties and fantasies, his ultimate return to the U.K. (which coincides with his relinquishing of the personal promises of self-realization that were offered by New York City)–even his obvious patience in waiting for his partner to resume her relationship with him—suggest that over the course of the novel, Hans van den Broek has attained a maturity that is strong enough on which to build a future.

Much of Netherland is about the game of cricket, and it is a credit to the genius of O’Neill’s writing that a reader can approach the book knowing nothing about the game, hear the narrator sigh mid-explanation about how tired he is of trying to explain it to everyone and give up the attempt, and finish reading the novel still not know anything much about cricket, but have enjoyed the whole book anyway. In that way, it reminded me a little of Field of Dreams vis á vis baseball. I can see a film that will satisfy popular interest coming out of Netherland as well, but this is a far more important book in terms of where we are as a society right now than Field of Dreams ever tried to be. In Netherland, for the first time post 9/11 I have read a book about the disaster that exploded in New York and shook every corner of the world, and seen not only what we've lost, but also what we've gained.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters