Netherland: A Novel

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The Millions Top Ten: October 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Inherent Vice 3 months 2. 2. Zeitoun 4 months 3. 7. Cloud Atlas 2 months 4. 3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 4 months 5. 5. (tie) Asterios Polyp 2 months 6. - The Wild Things 1 month 7. 4. The Skating Rink 3 months 8. 10. (tie) Imperial 2 months 9. 5. (tie) Felonious Jazz 6 months 10. - Austerlitz 1 month Dave Eggers lands a second book on our Top Ten with his novelization of the Spike Jonze movie The Wild Things. (Eggers is having similar success on some other distinguished lists.) Here at The Millions, Wild Things was a Most Anticipated book and Emily recent revisited the beloved children's book that started it all. Also debuting is Austerlitz, the 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald. The book recently landed at #7 in our "Best of the Millennium" series. We didn't have any new Hall of Fame inductees this month, and falling off the Top Ten were The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, and Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. And, finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their top positions. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Inherent Vice 2 months 2. 2. Zeitoun 3 months 3. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 3 months 4. 6. (tie) The Skating Rink 2 months 5. (tie) - Asterios Polyp 1 month 5. (tie) 10. Felonious Jazz 5 months 7. - Cloud Atlas 1 month 8. - The Year of the Flood 1 month 9. - The White Tiger 1 month 10. (tie) - Future Missionaries of America 1 month 10. (tie) - Imperial 1 month 10. (tie) 9. Netherland 4 months Four inductees to The Millions Hall of Fame plus gridlock in the tenth spot on our list meant room for plenty of new titles on the list in September. Graduating to our Hall of Fame were four illustrious titles, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Matthew Diffee's The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, and Carl Wilson's Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The former two titles are good examples of our readers' taste in fiction (Wao in fact won our recent readers' poll of the best fiction of the decade). The latter two are niche titles that sparked an enduring interest in readers despite relatively minor mentions at The Millions. Newly appearing on the list are some recently published titles. Asterios Polyp, which we reviewed not long ago, Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and William T. Vollmann's Imperial, which were both on our most recent Most Anticipated list, and Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, who was an interviewer and an interviewee for us in June. Also debuting are Cloud Atlas, which emerged as a big favorite in our Best of the Millennium project, and The White Tiger. That one's a bit of a mystery because we haven't talked about it much, but it did, of course, win the Booker Prize a year ago. Finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their positions, but there are still several new releases on tap for the fall, so they may be challenged soon for the top spots. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Inherent Vice 1 month 2. 5. Zeitoun 2 months 3. 4. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 6 months 4. 2. Infinite Jest 6 months 5. 6. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 6 months 6. (tie) 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 6 months 6. (tie) - The Skating Rink 1 month 8. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2 months 9. 10. Netherland 2 months 10. 9. Felonious Jazz 3 months Thomas Pynchon staged an impressive debut in August, hitting number one in The Millions Top Ten as Inherent Vice hit shelves. Garth, our resident Pynchon expert, shared his thoughts on the post-modern detective story just this week. Also debuting on our list in August is yet another title from Roberto Bolaño. Out of the gate, The Skating Rink is looking less like a footnote in Bolaño's prolific career and more like another Bolaño masterpiece, receiving impressive notices from the likes of Wyatt Mason in The New York Times (a "short, exquisite novel") and Scott Esposito in The Quarterly Conversation ("well worth your time"). The book was also on our most recent "Most Anticipated Books" list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame (after being on our list for 6+ months) are two books that have been surprise Millions favorites. Kitty Burns Florey's Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences was the jumping off point for a grammar rodeo that Garth put on analyzing a snippet of a speech by President Obama. The upshot? A Venn diagram of Millions readers and grammar lovers would show quite a lot of overlap, I now suspect. Also newly honored in our Hall of Fame is prizewinner Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which inspired Edan to pen her much discussed "Mom Book" essay. Other notable action: Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, recently reviewed around here and generally getting outstanding notices, shot to the number two spot in its second month on the list. Next month should be quite interesting as we're poised to have four titles join the Hall of Fame, freeing up room for lots of newcomers. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2009 – And Introducing the Hall of Fame

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This month we're also introducing our Hall of Fame. Any book that's been on our list for six months graduates to the Hall of Fame both to designate those books as all-time favorites of Millions readers and to make room for new books on our list. Our Hall of Fame begins with two inaugural inductees. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences 6 months 2. 5. Infinite Jest 5 months 3. 3. Olive Kitteridge 6 months 4. 6. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 5 months 5. - Zeitoun 1 month 6. 4. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 5 months 7. 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 5 months 8. - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 1 month 9. 10. (tie) Felonious Jazz 3 months 10. - Netherland 2 months Graduating from our list to our Hall of Fame are Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado, two very worthy books to inaugurate this new feature. Also disappearing from the list are Bolaño's The Savage Detectives and Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Joining our list for the first time is Dave Eggers' new book Zeitoun, an immigrant's story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The book was recently featured on our "Most Anticipated" list. Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is our other debut. The Swedish writer's series of posthumously published mysteries have gained quite a following in the States. The book's only appearance on The Millions was to kick off a Book Question piece about "closed-room mysteries." Millions readers, if you've read Larsson, let us know what you think. Meanwhile, Joseph O'Neill returns to our list after appearing on our initial top-ten list at the beginning of the year and then getting bumped off. Maybe President Obama's mention of the book a few months back is continuing to generate sales. See Also: Last month's list.

O’Neill and Bellow

In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, began, "Prompted by a writing assignment, I've been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years - and I'm completely smitten all over again, only more deeply." I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow's 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O'Neill.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2009

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Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out last month's introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences1 month2.1.26662 months3.2.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2 months4.-Olive Kitteridge1 month5.3.Infinte Jest2 months6.-Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-19631 month7.4.The Dud Avocado2 months8. (tie)5.The White Boy Shuffle2 months8. (tie)6.A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again2 months10.8.The Tales of Beedle the Bard2 monthsDebuting on the list this month in the top spot is Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, fueled by a huge amount of interest in Garth's post diagramming one of the president's sentences. With that post still quite popular, don't be surprised if this quirky title stays on our list for quite some time.Another debut is Susan Sontag's Journals and Notebooks. This collection of writing from Sontag's younger years was highlighted in a recent post by Anne that got some attention.Also new on the list is Elizabeth Strout's collection Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist and a Year in Reading pick from Manil Suri. Those two mentions were quite brief, however, and the recent interest in the book by Millions readers intrigues us. If you've read Kitteridge, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.Finally, dropping off the list this month are The Savage Detectives, The Northern Clemency, and Netherland.See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten

We've added a new feature to The Millions sidebar. We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our inaugural Millions Top Ten list, and we'll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-26661 month2.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao1 month3.-Infinte Jest1 month4.-The Dud Avocado1 month5.-The White Boy Shuffle1 month6.-A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again1 month7.-The Savage Detectives1 month8.-The Tales of Beedle the Bard1 month9.-The Northern Clemency1 month10.-Netherland1 monthLet us know if you've been reading any of these books. We'd love to hear about it.

A Year in Reading: Kevin Hartnett

Kevin Hartnett is a regular contributor to The Millions.2008 was a year in which the country was looking for a story, and the same impulse directed my reading. On the campaign trail "narrative" was the analytic frame of choice. Hillary Clinton's candidacy failed because she could never establish one. John McCain's failed in part because the story that lent itself most directly to his biography - war hero, country-first corruption buster - was not what America was looking for. In Barack Obama, though, voters found the perfect confluence of his biographic arc and our hopes for our own national narrative arc. We wanted to be the country that matched his story, and by electing him president we established a momentous symbiosis between the rise of a man and the resurrection of a country.The Bush years were depressing in many ways. Worse though for me, than the acute pain of any specific policy, or the sense of alienation from half the country, was the feeling of narrative disruption. The themes we'd always held to be true about our country - that we are meritocratic, virtuous, and ascendant - fell apart like loose nuts and bolts dropping from a moving car. We were not who we thought we were, or at least we were not that country anymore, and in place of a strong narrative direction, a cynical equivalence took hold. If we were not virtuous, at least we would not be duped. I found that I was often as disoriented personally as the country was as a whole.My favorite book of 2008 was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. It was not necessarily the best book I read this year but it was, start to finish, the most moving ride. The novel begins in the gentile tranquility of post-colonial Nigeria and ends amidst the barren wasteland of a civil war. Adichie loses touch with her characters somewhat along the way, but for its depiction of the precariousness of human life, her book is among the most vivid I have ever read.Its failure to establish a convincing narrative was the main reason that I dissented from 2008 favorite Netherland. The novel is about the post-9/11 dislocation of cosmopolitan Dutch banker Hans van der Broek, suddenly alone in New York after his wife decamps to London with their young son. Hans floats through an ethereally drawn New York and at one point a woman who creates photo albums for a living says to him, "People want a story. They like a story," to which he replies, "A story. Yes. That's what I need." It is a pregnant point, but also one that leads to the ultimate limitations of Joseph O'Neill's novel. A metaphor, no matter how lushly and beautifully drawn, is no substitute for the real thing.My other favorite books of 2008 are all from the canon. I revisited Rabbit, Run and found that the book had improved considerably since I first read it in high school. Even then I could not help but notice Updike's virtuosity with words, but this time around I took the most joy in the many, sparkling moments when Rabbit's character, so perfectly rendered, seems almost to poke through the page. Elsewhere, Levin's angst in Anna Karenina, which I read back in February, is still with me, and I don't expect to soon forget the dramatic reckoning in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych.My only reading regret for 2008 is that there was not more of it, which leads me into the new year excited to read more and with a list that is already longer than the hours I know I'll have. I take such optimism, particularly as it concerns the book, to be a good thing.More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading: Mark Sarvas

Mark Sarvas's debut novel Harry, Revised, compared by the Chicago Tribune to Updike and Roth, has been sold in more than a dozen countries. He is also the host of internationally renowned litblog The Elegant Variation, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His criticism has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Threepenny Review and elsewhere.Well, my favorite book of this year - of quite a few years - is Joseph O'Neill's magisterial Netherland but it's been deservedly praised everywhere, so I will save my word count for a less well-publicized book. And a non-fiction title, to boot. Rob Riemen's Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal was my surprise of 2008, a slender but dense cri de coeur from Yale University Press. It hit my radar around the same time that Sarah Palin hit ours, and I could think of no more stirring rebuttal to the proud ignorance she represents than Riemen's heartfelt pitch for the grand old values of Western Civ. The author, founder of the Nexus Institute, a European humanist think-tank, populates his crash course in the great thinkers with the likes of Socrates and Thomas Mann, and I can think of no better book for the President-elect's bedside table. Nobility of Spirit argues (among other things) that the pursuit of High Thought will always - must always - trump the pursuit of Fleeting Gain. (And as we move uncertainly through a historic meltdown of our financial infrastructure, we see just how fleeting it can be.) In the end, Riemen argues, high ideals (embodied by art) are as essential as food and shelter. The examined self never seemed so timely. (And, as a bonus title, I finally got around to Ed Hirsch's glorious How To Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry, a book that makes me want to grab my Norton anthology and read every poem out loud. To be passionate about literature is unfashionable in too many quarters these days; Hirsch is an essential corrective.)More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading: Josh Henkin

Josh Henkin is the author of Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, Borders Original Voices Pick, and Booksense Pick. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in many journals and newspapers. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Brooklyn College, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Josh lives with his family in Brooklyn.The one most on my mind at the moment is Charles D'Ambrosio's wonderful story collection The Dead Fish Museum. I first read D'Ambrosio many years ago when his story "The Point" appeared in The New Yorker. It's the story of a teenage boy forced to take home from a party one of his mother's dissolute, inebriated friends. "The Point" is about sexual awakening, among other things, and it's set against the backdrop of the protagonist's father's suicide. I still remember many of the images. "She was wearing a silky white slip underneath, the sheen like a bike reflector in the moonlight." "The Point" was the title story of D'Ambrosio's first collection, and if I have a favorite story in The Dead Fish Museum it's probably "Up North" (a sample couple of lines: "I've never really liked men on whom I can smell cosmetic products, and it was that morning, in the truck, so close to Steve, that I realized it had nothing to do with the particular soap or aftershave but with the proximity. If I could smell a man, he was too close."), which is about a man who returns with his wife (she's cheating on him) to her family's home for Thanksgiving and is compelled to join the other men in a turkey shoot. In my non-reading life, I'm not particularly drawn to hunting, but there's an anthology waiting to be compiled (perhaps it already has been, for all I know) of great hunting stories. It would include Richard Ford's "Great Falls" and Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow," along with D'Ambrosio's "Up North."I won't say too much about Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, lest I be accused of jumping on the bandwagon. But some bandwagons are worth boarding. Everyone and their cousin has raved about the book (Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner in the Times and the NYTBR, respectively; James Wood in The New Yorker), though Wood notwithstanding, the Brits have been among the naysayers (contrary to expectations, Netherland didn't make the Booker short list and in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith slammed Netherland and "lyrical realism" more broadly). But I'm with the Americans (and Wood) on this one. Netherland is a lovely, powerful novel, and the comparisons to Gatsby seem apt.More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading: Joseph O’Neill

Joseph O'Neill's third novel, Netherland, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2008. O'Neill's previous books are The Breezes, This Is the Life, and the family history, Blood-Dark Track, which was a book of the year for The Economist and The Irish Times.Prompted by a writing assignment, I've been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years - and I'm completely smitten all over again, only more deeply. Whereas I first fell in love with his work as a young European, I'm now seeing it with the eyes of an older person long resident in the USA, and it's like watching a high-definition, technicolor version of a wonderful but blurry and monochrome old movie. I see much more - not only in terms of the American (cultural and topographical) details, but also the human details. (And the sentences, with their extraordinary figurative inventiveness... How did he do it?) It's stuff that makes you feel tinglingly, fully alive.More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading: Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives in New York and is currently working on a second novel.I didn't read so many new books this year, but three I loved were Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness (probably my favorite final sentence of the year), Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (expected to hate it but all of the effusive praise totally deserved) and Liao Yiwu's The Corpse Walker (deranged, Terkel-esque Q&A's with the bottom rungs of Chinese society.)New (to me), and highly recommendable: Geoff Dyer's self-described "method biography" of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which I loved despite having never read any Lawrence aside from a couple of short stories; James Merrill's Divine Comedies, specifically the long poem "The Book of Ephraim," which JM claimed to have written with the use of a ouija board (!); Lydia Davis' great first collection, Break It Down; and William Gass' Omensetter's Luck, a perfect novel, and the best thing I've read in a very long time.More from A Year in Reading 2008

Tonight on Fourth Avenue…

Tonight's installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two top-flight novelists: Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, and Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions and The Impressionist. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard, between Bergen and St. Mark's. Hope to see you there!Bonus links: James Wood reviews of O'Neill and Kunzru in The New Yorker.

A Year in Reading 2008

The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts - collected with the help of many generous friends - to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008's best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call "the tyranny of the new" holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the "Best Books of 2008" feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we've asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We're doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O'Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You'd Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D'Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children's Literature: A Reader's HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil's ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil's TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005

The Notables: 2008

This year's New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:Beautiful Children by Charles Bock (Garth's review, Beautiful Children Goes Free, Beautiful Children: The Numbers)A Better Angel by Chris Adrien (a most anticipated book)The Boat by Nam Le (Edan's interview with Le)Breath by Tim Winton (a most anticipated book)Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (Mark Sarvas' pick for a Year in Reading)His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (Garth's review)Home by Marilynne Robinson (a most anticipated book, a National Book Award finalist)Indignation by Philip Roth (a most anticipated book)A Mercy by Toni Morrison (a most anticipated book)My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru (Garth's Inter Alia #9: The Aquarian Age is All the Rage)Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Garth's review, Kevin's review)Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (a most anticipated book)Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner (a National Book Award finalist)2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Why Bolaño Matters, Arriving 658 Years Ahead of Schedule..., Bolaño's Big Book Makes Landfall)Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (a most anticipated book)When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (a most anticipated book)The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike (a most anticipated book)

Zadie Smith Looks at the Avant-Garde Novel

In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don't have a precise working definition of "lyrical realism" it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers - Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky - and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the "brute materiality of the external world."As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity - who exactly is the "I" telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away - including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator's identity - what remains is the "brute materiality" of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, "it's not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry."But poetry, as Auden famously put it, "makes nothing happen," and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its "pure facticity." The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.

Ask a Book Question: The 66th in a Series (A Little NBA Speculation)

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Chall writes in with this question:Any National Book Award predictions?Awards season is upon us. The Booker shortlist is out, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced in the next week or so, and the National Book Award finalists will be named on October 15th. Chall's question gives us an excuse to engage in a bit of speculation, though we'll stick with fiction for the most part. Offering up some guesses at who might make the NBA cut are Garth and Edan, our two contributors most plugged in to the latest in contemporary fiction.Edan: (some of whose guesses were "completely pulled from thin air, for no reason.")The Boat by Nam Le (see Edan's interview with Nam)America, America by Ethan CaninFine Just the Way It Is by Annie ProulxIndignation by Phillip RothThe Good Thief by Hannah TintiEdan also likes An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston in non-fiction.Garth: ("Edan's got some good stuff going on with her picks. I think there will be at least one debut author and one book of short stories, and The Boat is a good call. The Canin is interesting, too, as he's well-regarded and this book hasn't gotten as much ink as it might have. For the sake of doing something different, I'm going to go another way")Home by Marilynne RobinsonThe Lazarus Project by Aleksandar HemonAtmospheric Disturbances by Rivka GalchenA Better Angel by Chris AdrianLush Life by Richard Price (a "sleeper" pick)Incidentally, both also wanted to pick Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, which was recently snubbed by the Booker. But I don't think O'Neill is a U.S. citizen, and that would disqualify him from the NBA. And here are a few of my guesses:Max:Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa LahiriThe Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffPeople of the Book by Geraldine BrooksCity of Thieves by David BenioffHome by Marilynne RobinsonShare your picks in the comments below. Name up to five books, and the whoever is closest will get bragging rights. Remember: only books with "scheduled publication dates between December 1, 2007 and November 30, 2008" are eligible. And the author must be a U.S. citizen.

The Millions Interview: Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey's latest novel is The House on Fortune Street, an absorbing, beautiful and sad story told from multiple perspectives. Richard Eder of the New York Times remarks, "Livesey's writing is acutely observant; her psychological algebra is admirable and sometimes astonishing," and Alice Sebold says, "her work radiates with a compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery." Margot Livesey's previous books include Eva Moves the Furniture and Banishing Verona.The Millions: The House on Fortune Street is split into four interlocking narratives that overlap and echo one another. How did you decide on this structure, and what informed the ordering of these narratives?Margot Livesey: I wrote the first part of the novel, Sean's section, in the late nineties, hoping that it would be a novella. I sent it to Robert Boyers at Salmagundi magazine. He wrote back an immensely thoughtful rejection letter which made me realise how much I'd left out of Sean's story. I knew, however, that I didn't want to expand the novella in a conventional way, that that wasn't what I was after, and I put it aside first to revise Eva Moves the Furniture and then to write Banishing Verona. But Sean remained on my desk and almost as soon as Banishing Verona was out in the world I found myself sitting down to write the second section of the novel, from Cameron's point of view. So I can't say exactly when I decided on the four sections, but once I did I knew where I was going and that I wanted to write a novel in which, as in life, the story came to you from different sources. I also loved the idea of replaying events from different angles, not in a Rashomon-like way but in a way that expanded or changed your opinions.TM: At the end of the novel, Abigail says her grandfather always thought "everyone had a book, or a writer, that was the key to their life." This is certainly the case for your characters: Sean refers to Keats, Cameron to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Abigail to Dickens, and Dara to Charlotte Bronte. For better or for worse, your characters look to the stories and/or biographies of their favorite artists to help them navigate through life. I wonder if this theme, which seems central to the story in many ways, helped in your conception of these characters. Did it shape their destinies on the page? Were there particular challenges to weaving this real life art into your fictional world?ML: The idea of giving each of my characters what I think of as a literary godparent came to me when I was working on Sean's section. As a graduate student of English he had to have an area of study and I decided that Keats - the poet of erotic love, early death and immortality - was the perfect choice. Then of course it got a little harder with my characters who weren't doing Ph.Ds, but I still loved the idea of how a literary godparent could point to a character's deepest concerns and enlarge the reader's understanding. My rule for picking the godparents was that they had to be well known and nineteenth century and somehow I had strong instinctive feelings about who was right for who - Dickens, for instance, would never have been a good fit for Dara. The biggest challenge was working the necessary information into the plot in a natural way so that the reader could enjoy this aspect of the novel.TM: It seems to me that The House on Fortune Street is very much interested in how our actions reverberate and affect other people, and how relationships, whether they be familial, platonic, or romantic, are limited by our own solipsism. How did you use the book's central event - a character committing suicide - to express the relationships between these characters?ML: One of the questions I was trying to explore in Fortune Street was how damage gets passed down in families, or not. Why do some people emerge from traumatic childhoods relatively unscathed while others are irrevocably marked? Dara's suicide, an ultimately mysterious event, is the deepest expression of this question. The other characters don't really see Dara, in part because she is an excellent listener, in part because they're distracted by their own preoccupations, or, in her father's case, by guilt.I was also eager to examine a long friendship between two women and the complexities of that relationship. I hoped that readers would begin by condemning Abigail for her treatment of both Sean and Dara and end up having a much more complicated response.TM: In one of these sections you portray a man attracted to little girls, and you do so with such compassion and depth that it's hard not to sympathize with his shameful and secret desire. Your depiction of loneliness and isolation is really incredible, Margot. One of the differences between this narrative and the others is that it's told in first person, whereas the other three are told in close third. Why is Cameron's point of view different from the other characters'? How did you go about creating such a complicated character?ML: What a generously phrased question. I was very concerned in writing about Cameron, a man who gazes longingly at young girls, that readers might simply condemn him out of hand. One way to make them more sympathetic - or at least more ready to suspend judgment - was to cast his narrative as a confessional. I think we tend to have a soft spot for someone who is telling us the worst about himself. Using a different point of view also fitted with Cameron being a member of a different generation than the other three characters. I decided to make his best friend gay as another way of commenting on his inappropriate desires. Lastly I tried to make it clear that Cameron judges himself quite harshly. He is confessing but not trying to excuse or mitigate his behaviour.TM: You grew up in Scotland, went to college and worked in England, and, after teaching at an impressive number of universities all over the United States, you now spend much of the year in Massachusetts. How has living in so many places informed your writing - and perhaps more importantly, your narrative voice and style?ML: I am not sure I know how to answer this question in a broader way. I do think that spending so much time in the States has given me a very particular way of looking at life in Britain. In many ways being here is like living in the future; things happen first in the US and then elsewhere. In the case of The House of Fortune Street I did try to replicate the rather fragmentary nature of my own life in the form of the novel.TM: And because this is a book blog, I must ask you: What's the last good book you read?ML: Do I have to answer in the singular? I loved Joan Silber's The Size of the World and Joseph O'Neill's equally cosmopolitan Netherland.

We don’t live in Rabbit Angstrom’s world anymore, though maybe we wish we did

The early years of this century have inspired an uncommon amount of speculation about America's advancing age. The Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, and the ensuing changing-of-the-guard buzz it inspired, was only the latest, and most pointed, example of the creeping feeling that America, while hardly a senior citizen, might be past its prime.The change, if it happened, was sudden. I took an international relations class in 2002, my junior year of college, and all of books we read focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new age of American unipolar dominance. Such thinking seems wistful, if not naive today, squeezed and suddenly vulnerable as we are to the unpredictability of terrorism, the rise of petrostates, and the momentum of China. The changing complexion of the world has inspired a raft of books on American descent, some of which look outward in their analysis, like Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, and others, like The Omnivore's Dilemma, that look inward at our unsustainable national habits.This shift in the national mood was brought home to me when, this summer, I reread Rabbit, Run, which I had first picked up in high school, and at the time appreciated largely for the basketball on the cover and the scenes between the sheets. The novel opens with Rabbit trapped at home, with a pregnant, alcoholic wife in a dingy apartment. The coat closet door bangs against the television set when he opens it partway to hang up his suit coat, a precise and simple illustration of the confined place the former high school basketball star has come to in his mid-twenties. Sent by his wife Janice to retrieve their young son Nelson, Rabbit instead steals into the family car and points his way out of town. Rabbit does not get far though. He's disoriented soon after crossing from Pennsylvania into West Virginia, and by daybreak the next morning he is back in the bowl of Brewer, ensconced mere miles from the his wife and kid, first with his old high school basketball coach and then for a longer stay with a wounded amateur prostitute named Ruth.I read Rabbit, Run several months after finishing two novels from our time featuring troubled male protagonists. Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land and Hans van den Broek in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland are constructed similarly to Rabbit, in that they are distinctively strong and confident in one part of their lives, but fundamentally weak and uncertain in the emotional dimensions that matter most. Though he's some years out of high school, Rabbit still maintains the cocksureness and presence of a talented athlete. Frank and Hans are confident and assured as well-off, successful professionals, yet like Rabbit, they are emotionally feeble and crippled in their marriages.The characters are similar in design, yet reading Rabbit, Run, I was struck by just how differently Updike depicts Rabbit's dislocation, compared with the renderings Ford and O'Neill give their characters fifty years later. The last line of The Lay of the Land describes Frank's descent into a Minneapolis airport, bound for the Mayo Clinic with his second wife tight by his side. "A bump, a roar," Ford writes, "a heavy thrust forward into life again, and we resume our human scale upon the land." The idea of returning to the ground, and to life, marks a break with the feeling of suspension that permeates the three books of the Bascombe trilogy. Battered by the tragedies that have accumulated in his life, Frank floats down the many miles of the Jersey turnpike, and drifts just out of reach of his emotions and the other people in his life. A similar sense of distance accents Netherland. Hans surveys New York from an upper floor of the Chelsea hotel and appears to have the same vantage on the events of his own life, dazed, almost, as if drugged, a surveyor hanging by the foot from a hot air balloon.Rewind fifty years, however, and Updike offers a different view of the situation. To hear Rabbit tell it, he is anything but adrift from the circumstances of his life. He is more besieged, and the language throughout Rabbit, Run is abrasive and aggressive. Rabbit is "irritated" by Ruth's friends. The strap of his golf bag "gnaws at his shoulder." The chair in his living room "attacks" his knees and his son's strewn toys "derange" his head. He is beset at every turn, gripped as if trying to escape the clawing branches of a phantasmagoric forest. Though Frank and Hans are just as up against it as Rabbit, Updike's language, describing such direct conflict, seems of a simpler time, when the antagonists in the world could still be so clearly named. A bag strap, a chair, some children's toys.The stresses Rabbit faces are the stresses of youth, crucible pressures which bore in on him. It's not pressure, though, that afflicts Hans and Frank. They face instead the dissolution of narrative, the escape of once familiar boundaries and reliable sources of meaning. Frank has confronted the loss of his son, the end of his marriage, and cancer, unknowable episodes from Rabbit's vantage. Frank's losses have not left him with the oppression of a place he knows too well, the way Brewer confronts Rabbit, but instead with the void of a place he knows not at all. That the world becomes less intelligible, not more, as we grow older, is the wisdom Frank has to offer Rabbit, an allowance to ease the struggle, and perhaps a message for our time.

A Booker’s Dozen: The 2008 Booker Longlist

So long as the Booker Prize keeps longlisting 13 titles, I'm going to keep making that joke. The Booker season is underway with the unveiling of 2008's longlist. As is often the case, it is a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and old standbys. In the later category is Salman Rushdie who, as the recent winner of the Best of the Booker, was essentially named the quintessential Booker author and would have thus seemed an odd omission, despite the tepid notices The Enchantress of Florence has received.Perhaps worthy of more excitement is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which was the subject of dueling reviews from Garth and Kevin here at The Millions. The active commenting on Kevin's review in particular underlines the enthusiasm that this novel has generated. Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 has also generated quite a bit of enthusiasm this year. In December, Dan Kois of the New York magazine blog Vulture featured it in a contribution to our Year in Reading series. As always, the bookmakers have their own favorites: "Bookmakers William Hill have put Mr O'Neill as favourite to win the prestigious prize at 3/1, while Sir Salman has odds of 4/1."All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (excerpt)Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor ArnoldThe Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (excerpt)From A to X by John BergerThe Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (excerpt)Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (excerpt)The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant (excerpt pdf)A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (excerpt)The Northern Clemency by Philip HensherNetherland by Joseph O'Neill (excerpt)The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (excerpt)Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (excerpt)A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (excerpt)

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

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

The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

It has been said, though by whom I can't remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings - the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay - no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world's most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow - Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet - constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O'Neill's ambitions - and the sublimity his accomplishments - that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans' narration has a Proustian sensitivity - and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic - and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O'Neill's finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. "'Think fantastic,'" he tells Hans. "'My motto is, Think fantastic.'" He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:"I'm talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I'm talking about advertising, I'm talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant."Or rather, I should say, Chuck's most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans' Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. "He was going to fascinate me," Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck's strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of "Chuck Cricket, Inc."As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O'Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy - for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O'Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel's other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. [...] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist's attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It's a question of lookingO'Neill's writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James' formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation ("it calls almost for...attentiveness") to penetrating insight (It's a question of looking), it embodies Hans' weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O'Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor's Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O'Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor's Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we're led to believe matter most to him - his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake - never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans' literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake's "train-infested underpants" makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo's Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, "He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband - uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male," but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo's protagonist and O'Neill's?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn't quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel's chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel's manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA'd embrace of bourgeois "lifestyle" from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O'Neill's, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald's boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book's, and Hans', center of gravity. The point is not that Hans' suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek's wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O'Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought - has restored - Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin's take on Netherland
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