Bookstore shelves are full this season of sharp-looking new editions, an unusually ripe spring it seems, for hardcover novels by new and established writers. To stand out in the crowd, an author needs stand-out reviews, and it is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Pantheon) that has grabbed the loudest praise, both from reviewers and O’Neill’s writerly colleagues.
Wrapped in a muted and handsome, old-fashioned dust jacket – bearing a bucolic image of cricketers beneath a bower, the iconic Manhattan skyline in the distance – Netherland’s advance praise includes this from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Joseph O’Neill has managed to paint the most famous city in the world, and the most familiar concept in the world (love), in an entirely new way.”
Praise for Netherland has highlighted the city (New York) over love, the implication being that O’Neill’s take on Manhattan rivals the great novelistic triumphs of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo. Manhattan, the centre of postwar culture and power, presents itself as the novelist’s grandest challenge.
Like others before him, O’Neill makes use of the city as a stage for what Roth once called the “American berserk,” the antic reality of urban life to which fiction can barely hold a candle. The stakes on this theme were upped after Sept. 11, 2001, when New York came to represent not only American possibilities, but the target of hatreds emanating from afar.
I’ve yet to read a post-Sept. 11 novel that rises to the expectations set by critics. The catalogue of these efforts is growing, with efforts by Martin Amis, DeLillo, Safran Foer, Jay McInerney and, however obliquely, Roth in his recent Exit Ghost. One can’t help feeling that these efforts have appeared too quickly, just as the rush to memorialize the events at Ground Zero has lead to a logjam of disagreement among varied players, which include victims’ families, the New York Port Authority and Manhattan real estate moguls.
O’Neill has let nearly seven years pass before grappling with the dark but recent past, and he, like Roth, approaches the quandaries of post-Sept. 11 New York obliquely. His narrator is a Dutch-born transplanted Londoner named Hans van den Broek, who finds himself living with his wife and child in the Chelsea Hotel when their apartment in lower Manhattan is made unliveable by the disaster.
The events of that crisp fall morning have blanketed the city in an “unfathomable and catastrophic atmosphere,” Hans tells us, leaving his family “holed up” at the Chelsea “in a kind of paralysis even after we’d received permission from the authorities to return to our loft in Tribeca.”
Hans is a detached observer of all this, but his wife is gravely changed, consumed by “fears of her own, in particular the feeling in her bones that Times Square, where the offices of her law firm were situated, would be the site of the next attack.” Hans’ most heightened expression of existential angst includes his concern over “whether we were in a pre-apocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the 1930s or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic, like that of the Cold War inhabitants of New York, London, Washington and, for that matter, Moscow.”
Even “near-apocalyptic” is too strong a term to describe Hans’ predicament. Though his wife does flee back to London with their son, Hans stays on in New York for the bulk of Netherland, musing about his quiet Dutch childhood, the strange energy of his work as an equities analyst and, more importantly, a recovered enthusiasm for cricket, the sport he learned to love as a youth.
Enthusiasm is too light a word here – love affair, great obsession, fanatical attachment would all fit – as O’Neill devotes long passages to detailed, almost philosophical evocations of the cricket life. Hans is reinitiated into a cricketer’s devotions by the mysterious Chuck Ramkissoon, a businessman whose spare time is spent promoting the wonders of cricket to Americans. It is this goal, and the connection with a weekend cricket league, which draw Hans back to memories of “marvellously shorn Surrey village greens – the smell of grass when mown in May.”
O’Neill is as devoted to the intricacies of cricket as Roth was to glove making in his 1998 novel American Pastoral, and as DeLillo was to the hidden world of graffiti artists in his 1997 masterpiece Underworld. These two books inform O’Neill’s goals in Netherland, but while Roth and DeLillo remain focused on American life, the depiction of cricket takes Hans back to England and its colonies, where cricket is a cultural touchstone. In repeated references to the catch phrase, “That’s just not cricket,” Hans recognizes that the sport, with its arcane rules and code of behaviour, offers not only exercise and camaraderie but a code of ethics.
Ultimately, Netherland aims to reaffirm community, whether on the cricket field or in the privacy of family life. At the novel’s end, we find Hans far from Manhattan, appreciating “horizons previously unseen,” which prophesies “extraordinary promise.” To its credit, Netherland is not one of the recent cynical efforts to respond in fiction to the dark events of this new century. But the reader may feel, too, that in its characters’ flight from New York City, the novel dodges what it proposes as its main theme.
Norman Ravvin’s books include the story collections Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish and the novel Lola by Night. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.