An Absence of Feeling: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

By posted at 4:37 am on June 26, 2008 5

coverNetherland 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

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5 Responses to “An Absence of Feeling: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland”

  1. Drew Johnson
    at 4:55 am on June 26, 2008

    I can't help but feel that your review is way off-base. If literature has to be about full-throated, deeply engaged people in order to be literature, then oblique folks like Hans need not apply. Only episodes that have an obvious coherence should be depicted. Extraneous bits, characters, observations become bad and should be cut.

    One kind of experience–the "it happened to ME and it changed me forever and my life was completely taken over by what happened"–becomes the only kind of experience.

    I've read too many books written out of that aesthetic. After a while they just seem flat in their no nuance, relentlessness.

    Part of Netherland's greatness springs from the choice not to make Chuck more essential to Hans' life–by which he would mere become another ethnic wiseman. He is given his own integrity as a character. The book touches on his story but isn't complete; it's an oblique partial portrait of Chuck, and only insofar as he entered a strange time in Hans' life. Just as we find out next to nothing regarding Hans' wife's affair with the chef.

    Oblique, get it? Like so much of life. As well as so much great literature.

  2. Jacob Russell
    at 7:23 am on June 26, 2008

    I found your review interesting and disappointing. For a book I've not read, I like to get some idea of what the book does well as well as it's weaknesses. You give no sense of the writing–no quotes, no close reading of selected passages. Your own disappointment, by the end of the review, comes to feel like pressure you're exerting on the author, postpartum: a complaint that he hasn't written a book that serves up the kind of pleasure you prefer. You acknowledge intellectual and aesthetic engagement (the books evident strengths) without explaining what they are: intellectual and aesthetic engagement are quite enough for some–what is it that makes your preferred pleasures superior? That's not a rhetorical question; had you explained this better I might still disagree in my assessment of the book, but would not have reason to be disappointed with your review.

  3. Kevin Hartnett
    at 8:08 am on June 26, 2008

    Drew and Jacob- Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    I think you're right, Jacob, that a review should explain both the good and less good of a novel. In this case, I chose to focus more on what I didnt like about Netherland because, given how much critical praise the book has already received, I thought readers would have plenty of other places to learn about the book's strengths.

    And Drew, some of my favorite literary characters are every bit as disengaged as Hans (Rabbit Angstrom and Frank Bascombe, for two), but in both those cases Updike and Ford wrap the disengagement in a story (nothing dramatic, just the quiet intensity of everyday life), and for me as a reader, it's the story, not the original idea of the disengagement, that makes the characters real. Absent a story to pair with the conception of Hans, I found his character to be less real, understandable or compelling.

  4. Steve Weisse
    at 6:18 am on July 8, 2008

    I read your review with great interest, more so when it became apparent that it was articulating the vague dissatisfaction that I too had when reading Netherland. While the prose is excellent, and the mechanics of writing are clearly in evidence, I found myself feeling the same way about many of the flashback vignettes. For the most part, I kept wondering "why should I care about this?" Some of the backstory was almost ADD-like , seeming to drift off in only vaguely tangential ways.
    For example, unless I'm missing some incredibly important metaphor, why should I have cared that there were parrots or parakeets in the cemetary where Chuck wished to be buried? Did it really flesh out his character, or the character of his long suffering wife? If it was intended to do that, the effort was lost on me. I found myself thinking "Where is this whole bird story leading?", which, for me, was decidedly nowhere.
    Of course, I always hold out the notion that perhaps I just missed something, and was not sufficiently engaged enough to glean the important truth from the text. If that is the case, I'm guilty as charged.
    Thus, in large part, your review captured exactly the feelings that I was having at many points in the novel.
    However, I must disagree with some of your observations, particularly those regarding the cricket metaphor that pervades the novel. I'm not sure what you familiarity is with this game, but I am the president of a local cricket club in upstate NY, and as a native born American and one of only two such members on the club, I can say that O'Neill captures the sub-culture with 100% accuracy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his encounter with the Sri Lankan taxicab driver.
    While you opined "Reading Hans' conversation with the cab driver, I was struck by the improbability of the social engagement that results." I could only think "That's EXACTLY what would have happened.." in such a situation as that. Although cricket is largely an immigrant sub-cultural phenomenon here in the U.S., in my personal experience, the mere mention of in interest in the game sparks an almost instant bonding between individuals. I cannot explain why, but clearly O'Neill understands this. I will agree that USUALLY the social connection between a cab driver and his fare in NYC would be virtually non-existent, but there is no question that the sport of cricket would EASILY transcend that taboo and render it inert…..
    (I must confess, though, I share an obsession with the game of cricket that closely parallels Chuck Ramkisoon's in the novel, so my thoughts and opinions on this subject must be taken in that light….O'Neil's description of Chuck's dream cricket stadium and optimism about it's potential success are so much like my own, it's scary…. Much of Chuck's dialogue about cricket sounds eerily similar to my own pontifications regarding the sport in the U.S… but that's a whole other story!)
    Thanks for the review, and for putting to words many of the thoughts I shared regarding Netherland….. Despite the shortcomings you mentioned, the cricket content alone is enough for me to recommend the novel to my friends and colleagues, certainly those who play cricket in this country.

  5. steve s.
    at 10:56 am on July 10, 2008

    I agree with steve w's comment about the longueurs and I also felt that the conversation about sports between the immigrant cabdriver and the millionaire financial analyst seemed entirely possible (and thanks also for the insider's opinion about the sport). The parrots who inhabit the Brooklyn cemetery where Chuck wishes to be buried seem like an obvious symbol for immigration, although I wondered about the migratory instincts of such creatures.

    Other than that I agree with Kevin's opinions and observations. The linear arrangement of photos in the album seems to be the antithesis of this novel in terms of form, as described by Garth in his review.

    The parent or patient who suffers from memory loss or Alzheimer's is a character that seems to reappear in "9/11 novels" like Ian McEwan's "Saturday" and DeLillo's "Falling Man." I think it's meant to represent something like generational change.

    I think it's the loss of the mother that causes Hans's malaise and leads to the breakup of his marriage. After 9/11 I think Chuck becomes a kind of father figure to Hans, who was raised without one. Although his mother is a loving parent, she's not much of an authority figure. For instance, when she catches him skating in the canal playing hooky she's surprisingly nonjudgemental. Chuck's death in the Gowanus Canal reminded me of it. The ending is sentimental but I didn't mind it.

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