Monday, February 15, 2010

Netherland: Joseph O' Neill

Friends often ask me what makes me pick the books that I want to read. Unfortunately, I have no satisfying answer. There are too many paths that might lead to a book. Sometimes though, strolling aimlessly down, it might appear that unseen forces are directing me, nudge by unexpected nudge, towards a book that might slowly turn into an inevitable future tenant of my bookself real estate. Sometimes, circumstances conspire to whisper directions in the ear, moving me inexorably towards a particular book. Joseph O'Neill's PEN/Faulkner award winning, and soon-to-be-a-movie-by-Sam-Mendes novel Netherland was one such inevitability.

The New York Times Book Review's Best Books of the Year list is a favorite source of book ideas for me. Netherland was on the list in 2008, making not just the 'Best 100 books' list, but also the '10 Best Books' list. (As an aside, another book from the same year's 10 Best was Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which I had thoroughly enjoyed). So, NYT Best Book of the year. "Proceed straight" whispered the book Gods. In the summer of 2009, Barack Obama left for a week's vacation to Martha's Vineyard. Among the load of trivial questions that the press asked him before he left, one was - "what book are you taking with you to read?" His answer: Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. JS nods reading this in the Washington Post. Take the next left turn. Hey, there seems to be a lot of buzz about this book. Let me find out what it is about. What is that again? Some Dutch guy discovering cricket in NY? Cricket! in NY! How odd. Take the next right turn. At the local Barnes & Noble, I see the book for the first time. On its cover is the Manhattan skyline (minus the Twin Towers). But here is the odd thing: The skyline, when it appears in covers, tends to dominate the page. Here, it covers the bottom half inch of the cover, with the rest of the page given to a blue sky with a wisp of a cloud. That's so unusual. I like this cover. Continue straight ahead. Let me quickly skim it and see how I like it. Hey, what's this? The protagonist is an educated immigrant in his mid-thirties working in an Investment Bank researching oil and gas stocks. An equity analyst as a protagonist? Not exactly common in literature. But so much easier for me to identify with than, say, an unusually literate concierge in an apartment building in Paris (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, for those of you who care). Destination. See? Inevitable.

Netherland is a book about a Dutch-English immigrant in post-9/11 New York. Hans van den Broek (has there been a more exotically named protagonist in recent fiction?) is living with his wife and son in Manhattan when the horror of 9/11 throws their world into turmoil. Moving temporarily into the Chelsea Hotel, Hans sees his life change in ways unimaginable to his preppy, Lacoste polo shirt wearing younger self. As his marriage starts showing the stress of an indefinite exile in a strange hotel, and his wife and son leave for England, Hans is left by himself in a vast city that threatens to both consume him and leave him miserably alone all at once.

Enter Chuck Ramkissoon. A flamboyant Trinidadian, umpire in the local cricket league, a dreamer who would build a cricket stadium (no, 'arena') in NYC, runner of an illegal gambling ring, opinionated, street-savvy man who 'has more life inside him than ten people'. Chuck takes Hans (and the reader) to a New York that might as well be underground for how different it is from the Statue-Bridge-Central Park tourist version of the city. This is the New York of immigrants. And in this chaotic jungle of a city, crazed drumbeat of a life, Chuck shows us a dream - cricket, as a national sport in America. And its founding temple - a cricket arena in New York City. "You know what my motto is?" asks Chuck, before answering himself, "Think fantastic. My motto is, think fantastic."

9/11 and its aftermath are the never mentioned backdrop of most of what happens in Netherland. It is a lens through which the story can be read, to a satisfying end. And then there is the other layer - the love story that also seems to be playing all this while, in mute.

Netherland has been compared by almost every reviewer I have read, to The Great Gatsby, the Fitzgerald New York classic . Now, I haven't read Gatsby, but the resonance must have been really strong, for so many critics to mention it. (Or most of them haven't read Gatsby either, and are just copying Nikito Kakutani!) If any of you readers have read Fitzgerald, the comparison should probably tell you much about Netherland.

Last year, in reviewing The Kite Runner, I had remarked unfavorably upon the fact that the book was 'too pat'. Every anecdote, every little incident, every facial mark in the book ends up having some 'significance' in the way the story resolves. I had been unimpressed by this need for dramatic closure, for this much symbolism. Netherland is a good example of the opposite. O'Neill's anecdotes in the story are all loose ends, more or less. They all work towards creating a mood, a rhythm for the book, but can never quite be interpreted in a straight-forward way. They are open, in other words, to the reader reading them a few different ways. That is good writing. That is what I meant when I said The Kite Runner is 'too pat'.

Netherland was one of the major literary events of 2008. Two years later, I can now say it - been there, done that, loved it.

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