Friday, November 23, 2012


Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Random House Inc., 2008) 256 pages

Joseph O'Neill , a writer of Irish descent, raised in the Netherlands, is a devoted cricketer and proselytizer for the sport and does his best to introduce his beloved sport into this novel. My heart sank a bit. A novel about ... cricket? But no, it's much more than that.  

Hans, an equities analyst in the financial sector, is also of Dutch descent and living in New York, a post-9-11 New York. It starts with the news that Hans' friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian and fellow cricketer, has been found murdered after being missing for two years. 

"Netherland" comes to have multiple meanings for the reader: the most obvious one is Hans' birthplace: the Netherlands. Secondly, New York and its environs (encompassing New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut) was once referred to as "New Netherland". And lastly, "netherland" is also a good description of where Hans has ended up ... cast adrift by his estrangement with his wife on the strange, if fascinating, island of Manhattan.

The novel is a good encapsulation of the fear and paranoia that accompanied that 9-11 period. Symbolically, NYC could also be perceived as brave new terrain for Hans, a world that has driven his wife out of the city and back to her parents' home in the U.K. Hans is now living in the infamous Chelsea Hotel pending some work being done in his Tribeca apartment. It's a curious choice considering the hotel's notorious history and the fact that he works in one of the most famously conservative fields in New York. It is traditionally the habitue of writers, musicians, artists, and actors and the scene of not a few deaths by overdose or murder (Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon immediately come to mind). 

So it doesn't seem all that unusual when a Turkish man dressed as a bedraggled, dirty angel (replete with feathery wings) appears at Hans' door searching for his lost cat. They become an oddly matched pair of friends with Hans even going to the trouble of buying new wings for the angel. 

But then again, Hans seems to be magnet for all sorts of interesting people ... he meets the multi-tasking entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon in a restaurant frequented by cabbies looking for authentic South Asian home cooking; he has a one night encounter with a sultry Jamaican who claims she knew him very slightly in London, engages the bewildered Hans in some light bondage and then disappears from his life; the perfectly coiffed and costumed Avalon at a cricket dinner whom we immediately suspect (perhaps wrongly?) is a transvestite; the attendees of the "dog party" in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel ... it is indeed a brave new world for Hans.

His take on New York is that of a fascinated, captivated alien trying to decipher the magnificent strangeness of the most exciting city in the world. There is a weird symmetry in the Dutch born Hans surveying what has become of the land his forbears founded in the early 16th c.

I am always wary of writers' own particular passions and the way they integrate them into works of fiction - in this case I begin to suspect that O'Neill created this subplot revolving Ramkissoon, the cricketing entrepreneur, specifically so that he might talk endlessly about the sport ... and the bats, and the quality of the cricket grounds, and the rules, and the fanaticism of the fans ... it's tedious even just listing these items much less reading about the sport.

One thing that this book captures very well is the disintegration of a marriage - death by a thousand small, emotional cuts. Here is a small portion of a long sentence covering almost two pages in O'Neill's rambling, Jamesian, eloquent, multi-claused sentences that is used to good effect:

... our fading marriage, the two New York years in which she withheld from me all kisses on the mouth, withheld these quietly and steadily and without complaint, averting even her eyes whenever mine south them out in emotion, all the while cultivating a dutiful domesticity and maternal ethic that armored her in blamelessness, leaving me with no way to reproach her, no way to find fault or feelings, waiting for me to lose heart, to put away my most human wants and expectations ... far better to get on with the chores, with the baby, with the work, far better to leave me to my own devices, as they say, to leave me to resign myself to certain motifs, to leave me to disappear guiltily into a hole of my own digging.
O'Neill is a wonderful writer but he has a bit of distracting flaw in his writing, he loves the sound of his own poetic voice much like Julian Barnes or Christopher Hitchens or sometimes Ian McEwan or my personal favourite Martin Amis (all of whom I enjoy). 

Who happened to Chuck Ramkisson? If you have the stamina to wade through the cricket lore and these elegantly constructed sentences, you might just find out.
The author Mr. O'Neill devoted cricketeer

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