Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1738
Joseph O’Neill’s third novel, Netherland, delves into the immigrant experience, post-9/11 New York, and troubled personal relationships. The novel has rightfully drawn much critical attention. It was long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and won the PEN/Faulkner Award. In addition, Netherland was named by The New York Times as one of the top ten books of 2008.
O’Neill, born in Ireland, raised in Holland, and living in New York, draws on his immigrant experience, his crosscultural background, and his love of cricket to color the novel. In addition, he demonstrates a finely honed sense of post-traumatic stress, and the way such stress insidiously undermines individuals and relationships. Indeed, O’Neill seems to be saying, all who experienced such a cataclysm might find themselves as outsiders in their own lives.
O’Neill underscores the sense of isolation and paralysis that permeates the novel through every available means, including even his sentence structure. He uses long, perfectly crafted sentences, befitting his main character’s penchant for thinking rather than acting. As a result, the book is dense, internal, and even sometimes claustrophobic. The main character, Hans van den Broek, tells the story almost entirely through his thoughts and memories, severely limiting the point of view. The technique, however, is highly effective, an example of craft and tone mirroring content. Hans’s quiet adventure occurs entirely in flashback. Home with his family in London, years after the events of 2001, Hans learns of the death of Chuck Ramkissoon, a mysterious figure Hans knew during his time in New York City when he lived there without his family. From this point on, Hans reminisces about the time he calls “unbearable,” in New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel while his family lives in London. Hans also recalls his friendship with Chuck, the people who lived at the Chelsea, and his time playing cricket in New York. He also flashes back to earlier times, as a child in The Hague, as a young man in London, and as a man experiencing his mother’s death not long before September 11, 2001.
In flashback, Hans reveals himself to be a Dutch banker, married to Rachel, an Englishwoman and attorney, living in New York City prior to and immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He is profoundly affected by the collapse of the Twin Towers and finds himself lost, floating above his world. His disconnection to his life may also trace back to the recent death of his mother, his only relative except for his wife and son. At the time of the attack, his family lives in an apartment in TriBeCa, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Forced out by the authorities, they live in fear at the Chelsea Hotel, unsure of what will happen next. Hans acknowledges that he is unprepared for this new New York, where everyone has an opinion about the world and current events, stating: “In short, I was a political-ethical idiot. Normally, this deficiency might have been inconsequential, but these were abnormal times.” He is insular, not unconcerned but overwhelmed, living primarily for his family and his work. His wife, finding herself unmoored as well, responds by withdrawing, as she regrets their move to New York and becomes increasingly hysterical about world events and the role of the United States. As a consequence, Rachel moves back to London, taking their young son Jake with her, leaving Hans at the Chelsea, bereft and alone.
Being alone is nothing new to Hans, however, who has been an outsider since he left The Hague, first for London and then for New York. O’Neill effectively develops the theme of Hans’s disconnection by placing Hans above the earth: He constantly floats over his home, either through Google Earth, or the London Eye, or on a plane. His sense of belonging exists only when he is with his family, which has been made even smaller by the death of his mother. His relief at Rachel’s statement to their therapist that she “stayed married to me . . . because she felt a responsibility to see me through life, and the responsibility felt like a happy one” illustrates not a passionate love affair, but rather a familiar and comfortable companionship, one that speaks of obligation, not abiding love.
In this way, O’Neill develops a common post-9/11 theme: the need for the familiar during a time of great fearful change. Hans does not seek adventure or excitement but rather sameness. He wants nothing more than his family, a job, and a home. As he says after the attacks, he and Rachel must figure out whether they are in a “pre-apocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the ’30’s or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near apocalyptic, like that of the cold war inhabitants of New York, London, Washington, and, for that matter, Moscow.” For Hans and Rachel, whether the world is really ending or whether it only feels like the world is ending is a slim distinction and ultimately one that separates the couple due to their contradictory responses to the disaster: The only thing Hans wants is Rachel and Jake, and the only thing Rachel wants is to run away. Separated from his family, Hans essentially shuts down and wanders through the next year of his life.
However, while Hans pines for what he has lost, he meets Chuck, a Trinidadian immigrant who has a dream of opening a cricket arena in New York. They are drawn together by their love of cricket and Chuck’s forceful personality. Hans speaks of cricket with a longing and love he usually reserves for his young son. He had played for a local club in The Hague from the time he was seven years old, and by chance he is invited by a cabdriver to play with a Staten Island team. Through cricket, Hans meets Chuck and the other side of New York, far from his Wall Street office. Usually the only white man on the team, Hans plays with primarily West Indians and Asians. They play a slightly different type of cricket, adapted to the inferior fields on which they are forced to play. Although Hans initially resists the change, soon he becomes more comfortable with his fellow cricket players than with his coworkers at his bank.
Chuck loves his adopted country and is given to long, unironic speeches about the United States and freedom. Hans has to check regularly to ascertain if Chuck is joking, though he usually is not. In response to a speech about the nobility of the eagle versus the turkey, Hans says, “From time to time, Chuck actually spoke like this.” Chuck and Hans spend time together as Chuck teaches Hans to drive and lets Hans drive him to his various business locations. In addition, they spend time together tending the grounds on the field Chuck has purchased for his cricket arena.
Hans’s emotional distance during this time becomes clear only later, when he describes some of his work for Chuck to Rachel. He explains a time when he dropped off Chuck at a location and later saw a man there beaten up and his office overturned. Rachel is appalled, and particularly so when she realizes Hans continued to spend time with Chuck after this potentially dangerous occurrence. Hans, however, cannot understand why Rachel finds this to be a problem as he experienced only minor uneasiness at the time.
Chuck also has wide-ranging business interests, including the running of a numbers game. He works with Mike Abelsky, a shady Russian immigrant. In both cases, it is difficult to tell if Chuck and Mike are truly involved in dangerous pursuits, or if they are relatively harmless. There are clues that others, and perhaps Hans, see Chuck as a ridiculous character with grand ideas not based in reality. However, since the book begins with the discovery of Chuck’s body, a thread of tension about Chuck’s “work” and his friends runs through the book, introducing an element of danger to Hans’s world. Hans sees Chuck for the last time at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when Hans and Chuck’s mistress, Eliza, lose him in the crowd. Two years later, when Hans hears of the discovery of Chuck’s body, it becomes clear Chuck was murdered not long after this encounter. However, this tension dissipates with Hans’s return to London and his inability to look into Chuck’s death from abroad.
Hans’s failure to act and his unwillingness to change his situation can be both frustrating and heartbreaking. “Night after night” Hans gets on the computer and uses Google Earth to fly from New York City to London to see his son’s dormer window, but, he notes, with “no way to see more, or deeper. I was stuck.” At the same time, his memories of his life with Rachel prior to 9/11 are of a cold wife who withheld love and emotional support, even at the time of the death of Hans’s mother. Rachel’s conflict, as reflected through Hans, seems to be of a woman who has fallen out of love with her husband. However, Rachel’s character is also portrayed as somewhat condescending and cruel. While Hans claims to love her, he seems unsympathetic to her concerns and her reasons for withholding love. He acknowledges his own distance after the death of his mother, but he denies a link between that and the failure of his marriage. Their relationship, though repaired by the end of the novel, seems fragile and unstable. It is difficult to know what deep fissures remain in the structure of their marriage and whether the two will be able to regain a degree of normalcy in their lives.
Netherland is a beautifully written book with detailed descriptions of The Hague, New York, and cricket. O’Neill’s contemplations on love and family are ultimately redeeming if difficult. The novel, however, is driven by character, not plot, and the main character is forever stuck, unable to move forward or backward, trapped within his consciousness and malaise. Indeed, this sense of paralysis ultimately and ironically makes the book compelling. It seems O’Neill’s intent in Netherland is to illustrate how monumental catastrophe plays out in individual lives. In the postdisaster confusion, the characters are frozen in their incapacity to make right what has been irrevocably changed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68
Booklist 104, no. 16 (April 15, 2008): 26.
The Daily Telegraph, May 24, 2008, p. 26.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 6 (March 15, 2008): 265.
Library Journal 133, no. 9 (May 15, 2008): 93.
London Review of Books 30, no. 14 (July 17, 2008): 20-22.
Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2008, p. E1.
The New York Review of Books 55, no. 14 (September 25, 2008): 54-56.
The New York Times Book Review, May 18, 2008, p. 1.
The New Yorker 84, no. 15 (May 26, 2008): 78-81.
The Observer, June 1, 2008, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly 255, no. 9 (March 3, 2008): 28.
The Washington Post Book World, June 1, 2008, p. BW06.
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