Friday, 28 November 2008

Netherland - Joseph O'Neill

Every so often a book comes along which is so well written, which feels so perfectly relevant to today, that you cannot believe you haven’t read it before. Netherland is just such a book. It has been hailed as “a great American novel,” as the first great post 9/11 novel, compared to The Great Gatsby in its portrayal of the American Dream. And although I would take issue with pigeonholing it as either a 9/11 novel, or a book solely about America, there is no doubt that Netherland warrants each and every one of these accolades. It is one of the best books I have read this year.

The plot follows Hans van den Broek, a Dutch investment banker living in New York, who seeks solace from his failing marriage in the form of cricket. We are in the aftermath of 9/11, and Hans’ wife Rachel decides to return to London, taking their young son Jake with her. But Hans is unable to see that his marriage is in trouble; he is distant, emotionally reserved, rational to a fault. He stays in America, commuting to London to see his son every couple of weekends, but otherwise living in the chaotic Chelsea Hotel and continuing to accrue wealth without effort.

Then, one Saturday afternoon at a cricket match, Hans comes across Chuck Ramkissoon, a verbose and driven umpire and business man, who has grand plans for cricket in America. Chuck is a Gatsby-esque American hero; constantly striving to make something of himself, full of entrepreneurial determination and guile. Somehow, Chuck draws Hans into his schemes and soon, the two men have formed an unlikely, and somewhat shaky, friendship. On the one hand you have the wealthy Hans, who travels backwards and forwards between New York and London, and for whom America a nice idea to console his marital strife; on the other there is Chuck, a driven, dynamic immigrant, ever eager to find some sort of belonging in a country which represents possibly his only hope. He dreams a glorious future for cricket, a sport which he sees as instructional, the solution to many of America’s most pressing issues.

“All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket,” he explains. “What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive…It has a moral angle. ... I say, we want to have something in common with Hindus and Muslims? Chuck Ramkissoon is going to make it happen. With the New York Cricket Club, we could start a whole new chapter in U.S. history. Why not?”

His idea is simple: to build a cricket stadium on a disused New York runway, found a cricket club, and host international, multi-million dollar matches there. Crazy? Perhaps. But in terms of cricket today, his ideas bare remarkable resemblance to those of Sir Allen Stanford, the billionaire whose winner-takes-all Twenty20 matches between England and the West Indies have, at their heart, much the same intention: to reignite West Indian cricket and bring the sport back to America.

But in many senses, this plot is irrelevant. There are some beautiful descriptions of cricket, but this is not a book about cricket. Similarly it is set in the aftermath of 9/11, but it is not a book about that fateful morning or how it has affected the world. Nor is it specifically about the breakdown of a marriage. Rather, Netherland is about all these things and how they weave together in a mans life. It is one of those supreme achievements which seems able to characterise something about our world which is not often captured, and to do so with such clarity of thought and simplicity of prose that it is a joy to become lost in its crisp pages. Joseph O’Neill was born in Ireland, to Irish and Turkish parentage, raised in Holland, educated in England, and now lives in New York. This sort of cosmopolitanism shines through his writing. Like Jane Austen, O’Neill is a master of astute observation. The world he writes about is a world I recognise intimately. When Hans reminisces about first meeting Rachel, he describes them as having “courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” At another point he characterises English summers as like a Russian doll: largest of all you have “the summer of the great heatwave,” (2003) and from there they grow smaller and smaller down to “the summer of Monty Panesar and, smallest of all perhaps, the summer of Wayne Rooney’s foot.”

But where some contemporary novels can feel glib and forced, here O’Neill writes so eloquently that you feel your life reflected back on the page. At one point, sat alone in New York moping over the collapse of his marriage, Hans uses Google Maps to focus in on his son’s residence, spotting the paddling pool in the back garden, but unable to make out any more amidst the “depthless” pixels. It is a moment of simple beauty. Another comes during a scene in the New York blackout, where life seems to hang frozen in the air, halfway between apocalypse and invincibility. This is a fragile book, but with real heart at its centre.

And this is no more so the case than where it reflects 9/11. Joseph O’Neill understands something important about the events of that morning: that grandiose words are incapable of capturing them. Just as Don Delillo did in Falling Man, O’Neill does not seek to explain or resort to hyperbole. Instead, he is happy to cast 9/11 as an event which affected a great many people in lots of unexpected ways, but which did not transform the world in the ways that people often conceive. As Hans observes near the end: “Not that long ago, at yet another gathering of familiars, our host, an old friend of Rachel’s named Matt, makes some remarks about Tony Blair and his catastrophic association with George W. Bush, whom Matt describes as the embodiment of a distincly American strain of stupidity and fear. On this side of the Atlantic, this is a commonplace judgement, so commonplace, in fact, as to be of no real interest.”

This book laughs at the sort of exaggerated, reactionary anti-Americanism which has seeped across the world in the Bush years. But it is not pro-Bush, or pro-American either. It is not pro anything. It is simply a book which seeks to represent the world as it is, not as we want it to be, or fear that it may become. And I am not sure I have read a book which is more packed with witty little observations that reflects the contemporary world more accurately than Joseph O’Neill does in Netherland.

If you like plot-based novels, then this is possibly not the novel for you. While the plot description appears to offer a murder mystery centring on the discovery of Chuck Ramkissoon’s body in a New York canal, in reality there is no mystery. This is a book about one man, and his life. Despite the strange meanderings of Hans’ narrative, I was quite happy to follow where he led, to dip in and out of the multiple stories at his whim, to wait patiently while the slowly unfolding events played out. Within two pages I knew I was going to love it. And if, perhaps, there is a little too much of the male mid-life crisis literary prose here then so what?: it is so brilliantly written that it could have been about alien addiction to sherbet for all I cared. I just wanted to sit back and enjoy the fantastic prose, with its gentle rhythms, astute observation, and understated characters.

Perhaps Netherland is not the ‘Great American Novel’ it has been cracked up to be. After all, it does not seem to be pre-eminently concerned with America. It is a global book, a Western book at least. But so much more than that, it is a great novel about people and places and experiences, and how they interact with our mindsets at the time. You have to read Netherland; it is, quite simply, brilliant.

9 out of 10

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