Monday, December 28, 2009

Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (2008)

On Saturday I finished Netherland. This was a good book -- somewhere between Then We Came to the End (only so-so) and The White Tiger (excellent).

I can see why Netherland got so much praise: Joseph O'Neill writes beautifully. In particular, his sentences are each a mini work-of-art, with all sorts of vivid images and insights. But what kept the book from being great, for me, is that the big-picture togetherness of the plot and the themes is not as well-structured as the individual sentences.

Netherland tells two stories about Hans van den Broek, a Dutch immigrant to America who works in the finance industry and is displaced after the September 11 attacks. First, it's the story of Hans's up-down-up again relationship with his wife Rachel.

Rachel decides to move, with their son, to London in 2002; it seems that she is motivated in part by post-September 11 worries, but there's also something missing in their relationship with each other:
Her speech arrived at its terminus: we had lost the ability to speak to each other. The attack on New York had removed any doubt about this. She'd never sensed herself so alone, so comfortless, so far from home, as during these last weeks. "And that's bad, Hans. That's bad."

I could have countered with words of my own.

"You've abandoned me, Hans ... I don't know why, but you've left me to fend for myself. And I can't fend for myself. I just can't." She stated that she now questioned everything, including, as she put it, the narrative of our marriage.

I said sharply, "Narrative?"

"The whole story," she said. The story of her and me, for better and for worse, till death did us part, the story of our union to the exclusion of all others -- the story. It just wasn't right anymore. It had somehow been falsified. When she thought ahead, imagined the years and years ... "I'm sorry, darling," she said. She was tearful.
I'm a little confused as to what is driving Rachel and Hans apart. Their problems seem rooted in a lack of communication; the deeper message of the story has to do with how September 11 affected people's outlooks on life, but I do not understand the intersection of the personal and the large-scale in their relationship.


The second story is the more interesting one for me: it's the story of Hans's friendship with a guy named Chuck Ramkissoon, who is simultaneously striving to create a national following for cricket and running a criminal numbers game (called "meh meh").

Chuck is passionate (see Julie & Julia, here). His passion is both generalized -- for life -- but also specifically focused on cricket. I like the way O'Neill captures Hans's fascination with Chuck; he does not rationally know why he is so enthralled by Chuck, but it seems to have to do with the way that Chuck -- unlike Hans -- has a part of his life that truly and fully makes him alive:
"It's an impossible idea, right? But I'm convinced it will work. Totally convinced. You know what my motto is?"

"I didn't think people had mottoes anymore," I said.

"Think fantastic," Chuck said. My motto is, Think fantastic."

There's a passage on page 77 in which Chuck talks about the coming together of people (specifically, people who were caring for ownerless pets) that occurred in the days after September 11.

This is interesting because William Langewiesche's essay about the year 2001 (here; it's part of the series of pieces in yesterday's Times about the years of the decade) focuses on how the days after 9/11 illustrated all that is best about Americans, in terms of the spontaneous communal energy and working together that occurred:
Immediately after the buildings’ collapse, thousands of people who had fled or flinched went rushing back into the wreckage to help. Not just the anointed responders of the police and fire departments, but ordinary citizens, and especially construction workers who had the skills to intervene in a practical manner. By nightfall tons of donated emergency supplies were flooding in, and the disaster was being covered in an optimistic embrace. It was simply understood that you would find survivors and the dead, that you would work urgently to clean up the site, and that this would allow New York to remake itself into something greater perhaps even than before.

But the most impressive part was the way that chaos turned out to be not a deterrent but an incentive, encouraging unexpected leaders to emerge, rewarding invention and competence regardless of credentials or class, and resulting in an ad hoc process of self-ordering that proved to be more effective than formal structures imposed from the outside could have been. Al Qaeda has its own organizational talents, but this was a side of Americans that the aggressors must not have imagined.

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