Sunday, August 3, 2008

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill

I am late returning to this post: I started it when I was away at camp when the book was still quite fresh in print. Now it has been a few weeks, weeks which perhaps will give me sufficient distance to evaluate it squarely (as my initial reaction was Sarvasly effusive—i.e. insubstantial, overwrought and gauchely hype-caught).

A number of glowing reviews in the various New York cultural outlets (NYT 1 and 2, New Yorker) provided they hype—hey, James Wood liked it! After reading a few more measured reviews (Benjamin Kunkel in LRB, and two reviews in the litblog The Millions 1, 2), I am still eager and willing to defend the novel as perhaps the best of the year so far, a title I expect it to retain.

The Kunkel review consists mostly of light frustrations superciliously expressed, but which are nevertheless insightful, albeit in a rather lateral way, uncovering the key points by impacting next to them. There are a few salient flaws Kunkel brings out, but I'd like to take just one for this post and save the rest for another post. I think this division will prove fruitful (at least for me) not because the two sets of flaws are unrelated, but because dealing with the first seems to me a good way to set the scene.

The first flaw or... well, it's not really a flaw, it's a sort of grumble or annoyance, but Kunkel seems intent on grumbling about it: Netherland, starting with its title, is not, as it may seem to be, geographically diverse, but rather spatially indecisive.

"‘Netherland’ is an ambiguous word. It evokes, of course, the Netherlands inhabited by the Dutch, one of whom, Hans van den Broek, tells this story of a few late years spent in that New World city founded almost four hundred years ago on Manhattan Island as New Amsterdam, in what was then the territory of New Netherland. But ‘netherland’ could also mean any faraway place, as in those ‘nether regions’ of the city where Hans’s teammates from the Staten Island Cricket Club spend their nights... ‘Netherland’ also has sinister overtones of Never Never Land, and sounds like a euphemism for Hades... The ambiguous title fits a novel remarkable for its complex geographical situation... So we have a British novel on American themes narrated in English by a Dutchman mostly about his Trinidadian Gatsby, while on another, fainter track of the story, he recounts a period of transatlantic separation between him and his English wife, who, not long after 9/11, returns to London with their young son... O’Neill’s effort to gather such a variety of social spaces under the same Netherlandish banner has something stirring about it. Many of us live, with Hans, this kind of far-flung life, globalised in all its localities, international even on a molecular scale, but contemporary fiction has struggled to keep pace with the aggressive contemporaneity of this way of living."

If the globalization of narrative actually stirs Kunkel, he does not really show it in the rest of the review, and the tone of the encomium is more auto-congratulatory than sincerely complimentary ("Many of us live, with Hans, this kind of far-flung life..."). "Jolly good show trying to catch up to the life I'm lucky enough to lead!"

However, if Kunkel thinks the novel's setting is spatially tenuous, he does not really address the added strangeness of having an American novelist reviewing this geographic mongrel of a book in the preeminent British literary publication. (Well, he does do a bit of self-deprecation when it comes to cricket—"The descriptions of cricket are the best thing in the book, even or perhaps especially for an American reader to whom ‘cricket’ is chiefly an insect.") Nor does he seem to acknowledge how hard he's working to turn Netherland into an American novel, plain and simple.

This may be a difficult charge to back up, as superficially, Kunkel seems to be reading it as a British novel (which is still a little weird): he does refer to it as such in giving its pedigree, and the (online at least) Table of Contents for this issue gives the subtitle of this essay as "Another Ian McEwan!"

Yet it is with McEwan that the compass swings toward America:
Chuck, Hans’s one real New York friend, as well as the novel’s central figure, cherishes the hope of making the quintessentially Commonwealth game of cricket into a commercially viable American pastime. And, in a way, this entrepreneurial gambit of Chuck’s resembles O’Neill’s own undertaking. O’Neill, that is, is working in a recognisably British mode of novel-writing marked by a combination of decorous prose, lyrical flights, well-carpentered plots and occasional injections of noirish material (we learn in the first pages of Chuck’s handcuffed body being retrieved from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal), and he wants to adapt this mode – its exemplar is Ian McEwan – to the American soil of the book’s themes or subject matter: multicultural brotherhood, immigrant self-fashioning in the New World, post-9/11 New York.
Kunkel is referring most likely to Saturday, McEwan's book which has all the aforementioned things—9/11, narrative carpentry, stylistic décor and decorum—as well as a financially secure and intellectually active male narrator, Henry Perowne, who would probably find a lot to like in Hans van den Broek.

But to say that Joseph O'Neill follows McEwan in seeking to adapt a British "mode of novel-writing" (one would be better off calling it a mood of narrating) to American material (i.e. 9/11) seems to me to be missing a not very subtle point which both Saturday and Netherland make perfectly clear: September 11th, 2001 was not an American event only, or perhaps even at all. It was a world event. And non-Americans can deal with 9/11 in their novels without it being an attempt to ground anything in "American soil;" their characters can ponder its meaning in their lives without really even much connection to America at all. To think that we're still missing the boat on this is embarrassing: America is not the world, and a 9/11 book is not, ipso facto, American nor necessarily intended to be.

And as for the other themes which supposedly plant Netherland in American soil—"multicultural brotherhood, immigrant self-fashioning in the New World"—I am not entirely certain how these themes 'adapt' the novel to America, rather than merely take the immigrant experience in America as its subject. And that is not just splitting hairs—in a novel largely about the rarity of true adaptation in life (Hans's unwillingness/inability to modify his cricket swing to adapt to American fields being the most telling metaphor), it seems rather question-begging to read the novel as being in purpose a work of adaptation.

Not to put to fine a point on it, the fact that Netherland—like last year's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and the year before that's The Emperor's Children—is nominated for the Booker Prize should tell us something about whether the rest of the world considers these books "American." The Booker is closed to American writers, so their presence indicates some consistent sense that an American (or more particularly New York) setting and themes (9/11 features prominently in both Hamid's and Messud's novels) does not automatically claim the book for America.

I read a review of a new biography of Joseph Conrad today; I get this service from Powells.com that delivers a review a day to my inbox. I have a backlog by now, and I'm trying to sort through them, so this is actually a few weeks old, but it certainly spoke to the issues I'm trying to settle here. William Deresiewicz (more about him later) writes:
The worlds of Conrad's fiction are shaped by imperialism, but they are not, by and large, imperial spaces. Forster, by contrast, gives us in A Passage to India the more typical colonial situation: two communities, European and native, living in precisely defined relations of subjugation and power, the lines of allegiance and conduct carefully laid down. Conrad's attention was drawn instead to the spaces between empires, between nations, the kinds of spaces in which he had passed his nautical career -- intercultural spaces, permeated by the force fields of empire but not bound within a single imperial orbit: the Malay world of his early fiction, the Inner Station of Kurtz's domain, the republic of Costaguana in Nostromo, the anarchist cell in The Secret Agent, the circle of Russian exiles in Under Western Eyes. Each is made up of individuals who have lost the orientation of a familiar community and the restraining context of a stable moral framework.
The worlds of international privilege and international poverty are, to a very large extent, I think, one of these spaces, "intercultural spaces, permeated by the force fields of empire but not bound within a single imperial orbit"—Hans, who comes to the United States with everything and who can leave with everything, and Chuck, who comes to the United States with nothing and leaves with less, live in worlds shaped by America, but which are not American spaces—even if they are, strangely enough, located in America.

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