Q : How do you start a book?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.
Joseph O'Neil : As inadvertantly as possible. Then I continue as accidentally as possible.
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?