Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

08/11/09, Mail Today

For a book that publishers refused to touch, Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s third novel, has done rather well for itself: a pre-publication buzz in New York that has only increased with time; stratospheric reviews, including comparisons with Bellow and The Great Gatsby; dizzying sales figures; the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and, the hippest of all hip endorsements, a place by President Obama’s bedside table. Now Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, has apparently engaged the services of another Oscar-winner, Christopher Hampton, the scriptwriter of Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement, to turn this novel, widely publicised as a book about cricket in the USA, into a screenplay.

How did a book about cricket, a game notoriously unfathomable and opaque to Americans, take the USA by storm? Late in the novel, a character remarks, ‘“There’s a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.”’ Good joke but, in the context of the book, saturated with the indirection that is its habitual, even default, mode. For Netherland is neither ABOUT cricket, nor is it the much-vaunted ‘9/11 novel’, as it is also being talked of: both descriptions seem to be the markers of a kind of deceptive publicity.

What, then, is Netherland about? Nearly two years have passed since its publication and distance has led disenchantment to the text. For starters, it’s not a novel that tells a story. What story there is can be amply summarised thus: Hans van den Broeke, a Dutch ex-pat who works as a futures analyst in New York, sees his marriage to Rachel nosedive after she leaves for London, with their three-year-old son, Jake, barely two years after the attack on the twin towers. Alone in New York, he joins a group of immigrants who meet up to play cricket in Staten Island and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian, who harbours the grand and unfeasible ambition of starting a huge cricket stadium in Brooklyn. Ramkissoon, it is gradually intimated, is up to some shady dealings and eventually ends his life handcuffed, murdered and thrown into the Gowanus Canal, from where his corpse is recovered at the beginning of the novel. (The book even wrongfoots the reader in setting up expectations that it is going to have an element of crime fiction, then deceives those.) By this time, Hans has left New York for London and is reconciled with his wife.

Written, it would appear, under the authorial influence of Marilynne Robinson’s classic, Housekeeping, the star of O’Neill’s novel, like its predecessor, is the prose itself. Narrated in the first person voice of Hans, this is one of those few contemporary novels which boasts a protagonist who is embalmed in rich, stylish, verbose writing: the long adventitious sentences are, for the most part, deeply, intelligently pleasurable. Occasionally, they can tip over into a slightly rococo mannerism, especially when they become hostage to the author’s polysyndetic tic, but when they work, their gleam is startling. Sentences such as ‘He looked unstuffed, an abandoned work of taxidermy’, or ‘The day itself was perforated by the rattle of a woodpecker’, get it just right.

Related to this is the central matter of Hans’s prolix and intensely self-conscious anomie, except anomie is not the right word since Hans spends the entire book anatomising his existential crisis, even arriving at some explanations as to what eats away at him. Take, for example, this: ‘I recall … trying to shrug off a sharp new sadness, … the sadness produced when the mirroring world no longer offers a surface in which one may recognise one’s true likeness.’ The crucial word in that sentence is ‘true’: throughout the book, Hans struggles to pin down a version of himself that will be authentic to himself and to others. This perceived shortfall or leakage in authenticity haunts both Hans and O’Neill: the novel strains so much for that and only that particular and elusive Holy Grail that vital components and characters – Rachel, the marriage on the rocks, the final reconciliation – all appear thin, unconvincing, as ciphers.

It is this discomfort that engenders the book’s characteristic qualities: the relentless pedagogic impulse embodied in Chuck, or the insistent and compulsive anchorage in New York geography. It is as if they are doing duty, nervously, for the lack of credible characters and emotions, by covering up the author’s own awareness of inauthenticity with expanses of arcane information – the hunting of iguana, the optimal mix of grass varieties for a cricket pitch, psychogeography of New York boroughs, Trinidadian aviana and gambling practices …

Hampton’s initial reluctance to turn Netherland into a screenplay may have been an acknowledgement of the difficulty that a novel which privileges language over story poses. How do you film a book that is all style? The film will no doubt concentrate on cricket and immigrants and failing marriage, in which case it’ll be, like so many of these cases, a filmed version of the accidentals of the book, not the substantives.