Saturday, September 25, 2010

#41: Netherland

Others have already called Joseph O'Neill's Netherland a masterpiece, summoning specters of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and even "[providing] a resonant meditation on the American Dream" (so enthuses the New York Times' vaunted book reviewer Michiko Kakutani).

I will not be doing that. I hesitate not out of disagreement but due to some innate reluctance to place contemporary books amidst the pantheon of Great Literature. I'm not well-read enough in either area to be sure I'm connecting the right dots in the right way. And yet one can't help but get the feeling, while devouring O'Neill's magnetic writing, that he has managed to capture the American zeitgeist in a way few others have.

O'Neill zeroes in on post-9/11 New York, but with the unique perspective afforded to an outsider. For Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born equities analyst who had previously lived in London, home is Manhattan, even as childhood memories of The Hague and frequent dashes to and from London create a sort of love rectangle, with each city vying for his attention. To Holland belongs his nostalgia, but it is London, where his increasingly estranged British wife and adoring son have retreated following the Twin Towers' collapse, to which Hans continues to return, both in mind and in body.

New York is just where he lives. And yet therein lies the secret to O'Neill's subtle ode to the city: he neither waxes poetical nor transforms New York into the gritty metropolis so ubiquitous in crime dramas. Yes, he revels in the occasional admiring glance. (Of Times Square, Hans concedes that "I always regarded these shimmers and vapors as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city's pigeons -- as natural, humble sources of iridescence.") But O'Neill's focus, and thus that of Hans, is drawn instead to its myriad characters, most notably that of Chuck Ramkissoon.

Chuck is a Trinidadian who, and here we can echo reviewers worldwide by drawing parallels to Jay Gatsby, dreams of leveraging his love of cricket into a burgeoning business empire, dedicated equal parts to revenue generation and also to a bizarre strand of ecumenism. "I'm saying that people...are at their most civilized when they're playing cricket," Chuck declares to Hans one day, in a characteristic burst of grandiloquence. "What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this."

By that measuring stick, Chuck doesn't play enough cricket himself. As Hans finds himself increasingly drawn into the sport that marked his youth, Chuck wedges his way in too, serving as Hans' instructor, ostensibly preparing him for his impending driving test. In reality, Hans soon learns of Chuck's ulterior motives. "It gave Chuck a measure of cover, maybe even prestige, to have a respectable-looking white man chauffeuring him while he ran around collecting bets all over Brooklyn."

Chuck's unsavory business dealings soon leave Hans with a sour taste in his mouth, one that fades only with geographical distance as Hans finally bids New York adieu in search of reigniting a future with his wife, Rachel. Soon after the World Trade Center attacks, Rachel had coldly expressed to Hans her intention to take Jake, their son, with her to London. "It's safer," she reasoned. For his part, Hans bitterly noted that "all lives...eventually funnel into the advice columns of women's magazines." Now, with weeks and months of separation accumulating with ever-decreasing notice, Hans returns to the United Kingdom to salvage the wreckage of what was once a marriage.

In a sense, Hans truly is the Nick Carraway of Netherland, narrating from the sidelines, an objective third party to people, places, and events that intimately affect his own life, from his wife to the cities through which he passes. He may leave the dreaming to Chuck, but Hans van den Broek's observations virtually force readers to close their eyes and open their imaginations.

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