Joseph O’Neill — Netherland

September 17, 2008 at 4:42 pm 2 comments

In Netherland (2008), Joseph O’Neill’s bid for “Great American Novel” plaudits is transparent. Irish by birth, Dutch by upbringing, O’Neill paints an outsider’s view of the nation from the perspective of a Dutch investment banker, Hans (the title, it turns out, is a rather weak pun), forced to live alone when his wife leaves for London.

O’Neill’s America is a big recycling bank, processing the exiled, the dispossessed, the junk of the world. During his two years in the wilderness (spanning 2002-04), Hans turns to cricket, and the company of a shady businessman, Chuck Ramkissoon. Narrated from a distant vantage point in 2006, the story takes the form of a disjointed, whimsical, dreamy tour through the fog of Hans’ banal and miserable memories. Indeed, the narration is so distant that when pivotal events took place I felt like I was watching through a net curtain — unlike, say, Damon Galgut, O’Neill spurns immediacy.

There is an interesting whiff of W.G. Sebald here. But where Sebald writes fiction in the guise of travel writing, O’Neill writes travel writing in the guise of fiction. The novel is self-evidently, embarrassingly autobiographical — Hans never convinces as an investment banker but is a perfect alterego for a cricket-loving, self-consciously lyrical novelist. The book, gently plotted, thin on action or interaction of any kind, is worth reading largely for its immensely pretty descriptive prose and wonderfully rich sense of place. Some of O’Neill’s observations are gorgeously on-the-money:

The tail lights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit store fronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown and introduced to my mind the mad thought that the final twilight was upon New York.

But O’Neill comes off badly in the comparison to Sebald. Too often the book drifts from poetic beauty to pompous nonsense. When every sentence aims for Banville-at-his-best lyricism, some are bound to fall flat, and plenty do:

Before long the night had assumed the character of an evil black soup, sampled somewhere along the line, whose bitty, fatty constituents rose sickeningly to the surface before sinking back again into a spoon-deep dark.

And I can’t help thinking London and New York are too overdescribed in literature, too cliché — O’Neill can’t mould them to his own ends in the way Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn (1995), makes Suffolk indisputably his.

The result is a competent and impressive piece of writing that, like cricket, entertains subtly and coolly — but, like cricket, leaves you wondering if you might have better spent the time on something a little more alive and emotionally grabbing.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, O'Neill Joseph. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Clare Politics » The Great American Election  |  October 2, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    […] be embodied in a book. In the latest much-publicised G.A.N. contender, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (a terrific piece of work notwithstanding the hype), America is not so much a melting pot as a big […]

  • 2. Candy Schultz  |  December 15, 2008 at 11:58 am

    I did not like this one at all.

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