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Book Review: Netherland

Netherland
By Joseph O’Neill
Pantheon Books, 2008

One thing should be clarified right at the start: Joseph O’Neill’s new novel Netherland is not a 9/11 novel – it’s a cricket novel onto which the events of September 11 have been tacked like a ‘wet paint’ sign. It’s true that the book’s main character, a banker called Hans who’s originally from the Netherlands, is displaced by those events – he and his wife and son temporarily relocate to the Chelsea Hotel – but for all the resonance or significance involved, it might just as well have been an undigested bit of bacon that prompted their flight.

The point is to somehow get Hans to the wacky Chelsea Hotel with all its wacky denizens (and to get him there alone – the wife and son promptly decamp to their London home and leave behind not so much as a bubble-pop to mark their passing)(that chunk of the novel – and the novel is all chunks and no stew – is clearly a remnant of an earlier ‘family-displaced-by-9/11’ story in which O’Neill lost interest … although not enough interest was lost to move him to excise it from the finished product), whereby he can be introduced to the ‘netherland’ of New York’s outer boroughs and, through the intercession of Chuck Ramkissoon, an expat Trinidadian whose picaresque tale is a chunk of yet another book, learn all about cricket.

The ghoulish 9/11-opportunism of all this might go down a little smoother if it were mixed with mellifluous prose, but such is never the case in Netherland, where at every opportunity O’Neill stultifies. See if you can spot the pattern:

I felt shame – I see this clearly, now – at the instinctive recognition in myself of an awful enfeebling fatalism, a sense that the great outcomes were but randomly connected to our endeavors, that life was beyond mending, that love was loss, that nothing worth saying was sayable, that dullness was general, that disintegration was irresistible.

That particularly sophomoric brand of rhetorical box-stacking isn’t the only Jamesian misfire on hand. Everywhere, vocabulary lessons are made to stand in for genuine people feeling genuine things:

At least twice a day I peered through the French windows and inspected the dirty, faintly glowing accumulation of ice. I was torn between a ridiculous loathing of [sic] this obdurate wintry ectoplasm and an equally ridiculous tenderness stimulated by a solid’s battle against the forces of liquefaction.

Solids looking for a smart, cohesive cricket novel – to say nothing of a 9/11 novel – should probably peer elsewhere.

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