Netherland is a good book, and much has already been written, here and elsewhere, to that effect. Its central conceit, that of the New York City immigrant subculture of cricket, provides a fresh perspective on a city about which so much has already been written, and the parallel story, of the dissolution of lonely Hans van der Broek’s marriage, often cuts with the immediacy of real, unmitigated loss. But, and of course there is a but — and perhaps it’s only due to my predilection for stories that come at me “like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky,” as Stephen King put it in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2007 — there is a deep problem with Netherland, and it’s that the book more often exemplifies rather than illuminates the central dilemma that draws its attention, the modern challenge of an individual trying to author a coherent story for his own life.
This is the problem facing Hans van der Broek as he surveys post-9/11 New York from his rented two-bedroom apartment in the eclectic Chelsea Hotel. His wife Rachel has decamped to London, taking their young son Jake with her. Her reason for leaving is ostensibly fear of another terrorist attack but really the problem is with Hans who seems barely present, wrapped in a malaise of his own divining. In Rachel’s absence Hans falls into the subculture of city cricket. He’s taking his suitcase out of the trunk of a taxi cab when he spies the driver’s cricket bat lying in the wheel well. He inquires as he pays, and the next Saturday he’s standing on a field on Staten Island, the only white man on a team of immigrants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other former colonial tracts. Reading Hans’ conversation with the cab driver, I was struck by the improbability of the social engagement that results. The divide between driver and passenger in a New York City cab is typically absolute and O’Neill presents their conversation as something like Alice’s rabbit hole, a whole new world revealed in plain sight. By contrast with Alice’s journey, though, Hans’ is fairly low stakes. He is a tourist, not an adventurer in this new world.
Hans becomes a regular on the cricket pitch, through which he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant with an entrepreneur’s interest in cricket, though no real talent for the game. Chuck dreams of building a cricket stadium on deserted waterfront property in Brooklyn, thereby restoring New York – and America – to its cricket roots and making himself rich at the same time. Hans takes quickly and casually to Chuck, explaining, “Because his deviousness was so transparent and because it alternated with an immigrant’s credulousness… I found all the feinting and dodging and thrusting oddly soothing.” Hans finds Chuck’s presence soothing, but not important. He has time on his hands with his family across the pond, and in that context, Chuck is a convenient diversion, a placeholder. There is never anything Hans has to learn from Chuck, or accomplish with him in order to get his life back on track. Such tenuous relationships are not the stuff of great literature, and absent real stakes in the story, the character of Chuck Ramkissoon is more inventive than artful.
Much the same is true of the rest of the architecture of Netherland, which comes across as contrived and clever more often than real and human. Certain problems are established at the outset of the book – a murder and a de facto divorce – but there is little effort throughout the narrative to explore them, unravel them, or even, often enough, to address them. Instead, Hans flits episodically through life in New York and remembrances of his childhood. Netherland is a character study more than a story and the central challenge facing the character is that he’s been unable to craft a coherent story for his own life, one fortified with governing values, purposeful action, and consequential relationships. What’s true in life turns out to be true in novels, too. It is hard to have a good one without those things.
In one particularly well-wrought episode from the book, Hans is approached in a Manhattan diner by Danielle, a fleeting acquaintance from his former life in London. The two go on a date and then pass a romping night together in Hans’ apartment. Danielle has no precursor in the story, nor any legs. She appears and disappears and at the end of her section, I wrote in exasperation, “Is it possible to deepen an understanding of the character without deepening the plot?” In Netherland the events are connected only through Hans, as he experiences and remembers them. This leads, in Hans, to a sense of vertigo and groundlessness, tethered as he is only to himself. In me as a reader, it led, quite frankly, only to boredom. My intellect was engaged and my aesthetic sensibilities stimulated, but at almost no point in the book did I really care about what was happening.
Halfway through the book, Hans takes shoeboxes of old photographs to a woman named Eliza who arranges photo albums for a living. She says to Hans, describing her work, “People want a story. They like a story,” to which Hans replies, “A story. Yes. That’s what I need.” Tantalized by O’Neill’s writing and very often drawn in by the creativity of his sets, I was filled with optimism as I read this. A story was all that remained to redeem Netherland, just as it was all that remained to rehabilitate Hans. But unfortunately, the story never comes, and the lasting impression of Netherland is a thought, an idea, not a feeling, and it is not for such things that I read novels.
See also: Garth’s take on Netherland