Monday, June 01, 2009

Fiction at the Crease

Q : How do you start a book?

Joseph O'Neil : As inadvertantly as possible. Then I continue as accidentally as possible.
I'm sure I wasn't Joseph O'Neil's ideal reader. I began Netherland some weeks ago. It wasn't the all-absorbing holiday read I was looking for and I put it down left the last 30 pages or so unread until today when I picked up it again today to take with me into that wonderful reading zone - the hairdressers.

The novel, which, you may remember, won a great deal of critical praise and was longlisted for last year's Booker Prize, as well as being nominated one of the ten best novels of 2008 by The New York Times and sweeping up the Pen/Faulkner Award. Obama was apparently also reading it.

The cover is decorated with words lifted from reviews - Wonderful (Jonathan Safran Foer), Stunning (New York Times), Breathtaking (Observer). I felt a measure of guilt most of the way through the novel that I felt some ambivalence towards it. Most of the way through I just felt I couldn't get a handle on it, there didn't seem enough that was cohesive to hold it together, and I longed for that simple, old-fashioned thing - a good story, to take over.

Netherland is a pretty unusual book : it's a novel about New York but focuses more on immigrant communities than the skyscrapers of Manhattan; it's a post-9/11 novel in which the incident is hardly mentioned (yet casts an enormous shadow); and its a novel about cricket set in a country where there sport is scarcely played at all.

Financial analyst Hans van der Broek finds himself alone in New York when his wife Rachel leaves him to go back to London, and finds refuge in cricket, played almost entirely by immigrants, mainly Asian and from the Caribbean. He becomes friendly with Chuck Ramkissoon, the "oddball umpiring oracle", a wheeler-dealer businessman with dubious connections who takes him under his wing. Later Chuck is found murdered - his wrists handcuffed and his body thrown into the Gowanus Canal.

But if if the reader expects the solving of and fallout from the murder to drive the story, this isn't the case at all. O'Neil actually says in the notes that accompany the novel that he actually abandoned a first draft because it was:
... undermined by a preoccupation with plot.
And then there is Hans marriage to Rachel. We're never quite sure why she decides to leave him and take their son, Jake, back to London, and why she can't get back together with him. We're not privy to her thoughts and we aren't given the opportunity to warm to her, while Hans who comes across as ineffectual and inert. He drifts and allows matters to take their course, rather than taking any kind of decisive action. It isn't surprising that he finds himself following in the wake of the charismatic Chuck.

Yet O'Neill catches Han's depression and sense of dislocation most convincingly, in the first person narration. He employs an almost stream-of-consciousness style where one memory flows back into another (very much in the style of John Banville in The Sea - I don't think that it is coincidence that O'Neill is also an Irish author), the novel moving between layers of time and recollection. I was also reminded very strongly - perhaps because of the introspection and aching melancholy - of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter : we get the sense of a real man doing his best to make sense of his circumstances.

It occurs to me too that this might be another example of what Atwood calls The Male Labyrinth Novel.

There are some beautifully observed scenes of New York, especially those which centered on his quirky neighbours in the Chelsea Hotel (where the author actually lives), and his visits to Brooklyn. I appreciate too what I learned about cricket (especially how pitch conditions and the weather affect play, and about how it is a game of perspectives - knowing when to switch from the wide view to the telescopic).

But I'm still not sure what to tell you about whether I enjoyed the novel or not. I still feel I'm pulling together the threads and making sense of it, but I suspect that this might be one I want read again.

If you want a taste of Netherland, you can read the first chapter here.

Now then, what are you reading?


Anonymous said...

I have it on my shelf but I'm going to AVOID it completely now. I'm old fashioned enough to want an author to go to the trouble of coming up with a story, and not come up with pointless ejaculatory wankery.

- Poppadumdum

Buddhaphish said...

Sharon, I tried reading the Netherland recently too but got distracted. I just couldn't get into the story, or cared enough to keep on going. Perhaps this review would inspire me to give it another try.

I just finished Wizard of the Crow by Kenyan novelist, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and thoroughly recommended it to Malaysians. It's on contemporary African despotism that at times, seems eeirly similar to Malaysian politics.

When will the great Malaysian political farce be written? :)

bibliobibuli said...

oh ye gods PPDD - now i feel so responsible. please read it and tell me i'm wrong!

buddhaphish - maybe you have to write that farce yourself!!! (mind you, as i have said before, malaysian politicians nicely satirise themselves).

thanks for the recommendation. yo've made me want to read the book.

Anonymous said...

Don't feel responsible - I already suspected Netherland was going to remain in the nether-regions of my reading list when I browsed through it. Hey, I found the American hardback for RM7 at a charity shop so it was worth buying lah :-))) The book looked new too - the previous reader probably gave up on it.

O'Neill sounds like a real wanker in the interview. One of those pretentious academic types who have to justify the existence of their jobs in the English department of universities around the world: "We must move the textual boundaries!!!" %^&**!!!

As I told such an academic/author the other evening, "You're writing FICTION - you're not curing cancer you know. Lighten up!"

Sorry for being so grumpy today :-)

- Poppadumdum

glenda larke said...

Just read Sea of Poppies by Ghosh - a Booker shortlist for last year. And although I loved the winner White Tiger, I thought Sea of Poppies was one of the most gorgeously rich books I have read in years. Entertaining, fun, filled with serious themes, brilliant characterisation, wonderful rollicking use of the English language, and yes - a plot!

If you haven't read this one, do. Now.

glenda larke said...

Oh, and welcome back, Sharon. I had withdrawal symptoms.

Anonymous said...

I'm having such a good time reading Stieg Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo. It's an English translation which is such a page turner. Half way through and wishing I could dump the process docs I have to review at work to read the book.....but alas, have to wait for the bus ride back home before I do....

Damyanti said...

Reading Allende's "The Sum of Our Days", which is so richly written, poetic and profound. At the same time, it has a touch of humor. Have not read Paula yet. Wonder why.

Another one I started last night is Alice Munro's collection The View from Castle Rock, though the story, Home, ended rather inconclusively. Must go back and skim through it again to see what I missed.

KayKay said...

What Am I reading? Empire Magazine's 20th Anniversary edition guest-edited by Steven Spielberg:-) Just needed a (short) break from books after reading about 4 novels back to back, the last being Don Winslow's magnificent crime epic The Power Of The Dog. on observations on this O'Neill chap. Reads like the latest literary wannabe who sacrifices pace and plot on the altar of good writing and some decent imagery.
There will be more......

Anonymous said...

Hi there Sharon. I'm sorry if this is the wrong place to ask you about the creative writing course you teach, but I tried sending an email to you to no avail. The streamyx address you posted is obsolete and the email i sent you was returned back to me. Anyway I just wanted to know if you still teach it...if so where? How much does the fee cost? Is it on part time basis? Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks and have a good day!


Anonymous said...

"undermined by a preoccupation with plot" means "I have no fucking idea how to write my story so I'll just forget all about plot."

Like taking a meaningless, destination-less car ride with a boring person chatting away.

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

I have just bought Tash Aw's new book and plan to read it in the next few days. You have been missed. Jane Sunshine

Philip O'Mara said...

going to read it

Read a great new sporting comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
This is an adult cricket comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.

Anonymous said...

So what did you think of Classes Apart, Philip O'Mara?

- Poppadumdum

glenda larke said...

PPDD, Lol!!!! I must admit I thought it sounded like a troll.

You and I are obviously real amateurs when it comes to self-promotion.

Anonymous said...

Glenda, yeah I know! Shame on you O'Mara!

- Poppadumdum

bibliobibuli said...

too funny! desperate, innit?

Anonymous said...

O'Mara is definitely a Class Apart.

- Poppadumdum