Friday, October 16, 2009

Reading group: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

The smallest gathering we've ever had - just four of us - to discuss this novel in which Dutchman Hans van den Broek is left behind in post 9/11 New York by his English wife and their child and, with the city around him traumatized and his marriage disintegrating, turns to playing cricket on Staten Island, the only white man amongst other immigrants chiefly from India and the West Indies, and becomes involved with dreamer and fixer Chuck Ramkissoon.

Ringing beforehand to apologize for her absence, Clare said she thought it was a great book, but the four of us gathered were more equivocal. Doug, whose suggestion it had been, said that on the whole he enjoyed the book, but that, as with the 9/11 novel Falling Man by Don DeLillo which we had previously discussed, and the Updike 9/11 novel he'd read, he was left distinctly underwhelmed. In particular he felt that he never got to grips with Hans's character, mainly, he felt, because the first-person narrative voice didn't seem consistent. At times it would be stark, fitting Hans's financial analyst's character and role, but then it would veer off into high-flown meditation and florid description. But then, said Doug, people are inconsistent, though clearly he had found the inconsistency he perceived in this novel troubling. Ann had had similar problems, and John said that he had found that none of the characters came alive. I said that I found the novel, like Falling Man, somehow dazing and distancing, that reading it was somehow like feeling my way through a fog. I just didn't know where I was with it, or indeed what it was meant to be about. I didn't feel that it was in fact about 9/11, or, in spite of the endless descriptions of it, cricket, but I wasn't quite sure what the real focus of the book was - or rather, that there was any. An instance, I said, of the sense of unreality is the description of Hans's life in the Chelsea Hotel (where he lives after his wife and son have departed). It gives the impression of so hermetic an existence and psychology on the part of Hans that it was a surprise to be reminded that every other weekend Hans travels to England to see his wife and child, or even that during the days he goes to work, and once you are reminded of these things, the description of the emotional quality of his life in the hotel then seems fake. Doug suggested that perhaps this sense of disassociation, suspension and 'fog' is precisely what is intended by these post 9/11 novels, as an accurate description of the post 9/11 experience for New Yorkers. John and Ann said however that that was all very well, but it didn't make for good novels.

Ann said she didn't like Hans's wife, and everyone agreed, but then I said that her character was something else that seemed inconsistent - she seems like a very different and more likeable character once she and Hans are reunited in London. John put in here that the reasons for their split-up in the first place, and the reasons they get back together are not made understandable or convincing on a psychological and emotional level. Doug also said that the novel was filled with stereotypes: the freakshow of the Chelsea Hotel inhabitants and Chuck Ramkissoon, who while being the most vivid - and therefore least ghostly - of the characters was perhaps the greatest stereotype, that of the noble (though ultimately ignoble) savage with the ability to make simpler and clearer responses to the world than the introspective Hans. People also wanted to talk about the fact that we knew the story right from the beginning: we knew that Hans would get back with his wife, we knew that Chuck's body would eventually be pulled from the river with its hands tied. So the novel wasn't concerned with story, then, it was clear. But then what was it trying to do?

I then mentioned Zadie Smith's excellent essay on this book for the New York Review of Books, which I had read some time ago. Smith posits that Netherland is not so much about the unease of 9/11 as informed by the authorial unease of a novelist aware that one can no longer, in all conscience, write a naively realist book, yet nevertheless emotionally and narratorially tied to realism, as we all are. As Ann said, looking at it like this explains a lot of the inconsistencies: the postmodern refusal of plot and psychological character development and the disruptive questioning of Hans's extistential meditations, in particular on the problem of how to 'see' things, alongside the realist symbolism in the baroque descriptions and the fact that Hans's meditations nevertheless lead him to realist conclusions, such an ultimate faith in, above all else, the perceptions of the individual 'soul'. As Smith says, O'Neill wants to have his cake and eat it. I think she feels he is more successful at doing so than we did. The realist elements led us to be dissatisfied with the postmodern elements (to want to understand better the characters' motivations, for instance, and to feel the lack of their portrayal as a loss), while the postmodern impulses in the novel made realist elements such as the descriptions seem on occasion arrogant. It is interesting that we all found the ending sentimental with its reunion on the London Eye, realist symbol of a realist confident authorial stance. In fact this final passage is a wonderful exercise in postmodern questioning of this realist symbolism: The higher we go, the less recognisable the city becomes, narrates Hans, and then, just before the very end, the whole scene is intercut by two memories, one of seeing the twin towers from the Staten Island Ferry, and in both of which there is a questioning of what was actually being seen. However, the fact that we had found the ending sentimental perhaps indicates that a realist reading of the novel had won out for us.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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