Friday, September 25, 2009

Initial Thoughts on Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

I recently read the acclaimed 2008 book Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to a variety of people.

Yet, if you ask me what it's about...I would be a little stumped. It's not that it's super avante-garde, complicated, or highly involved.

It has a respectable size cast of characters, but everyone plays in the background behind the main character, a Dutch energy analyst. This finacially minded dutchman, Hans van den Broek, is the central character who moved from London to New York.

When Hans moves to New York City with his wife Rachel they experience American life for the first time together, and a great deal of the story involves how their European perspective of America develops, particularly once Rachel and their young son return to London without Hans.

In addition to Rachel, the other character in the story of great significance is a man from Tridad named Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck is an interesting character who's story develops and is exposed throughout O'Neill's story in a unique way, primarily through Chuck's friendship with Hans that takes place primarily playing the game of cricket.

That's right, Cricket. Hans, in a world of loneliness and isolation reconnects with a game from his past-time, cricket. As a white man from the Netherlands, Hans, is the only white cricket player playing at Walker Park as a member of the Staten Island Cricket Club. A true Cricket club with roots back to 1872.

I feel like in many ways, the intrigue that one finds in this book is the way that New York itself acts as a character. Because the story is told from someone experiencing New York for the first time, there at a time before, during, and after the September 11 attacks we get to see the arch of character development in New York just as much as we do in the characters in the book.

For example, one of the main settings for this film is the Chelsea Hotel (picture right), a very famous Manhattan hotel famous for housing long-term guest with artistic tendencies. (Side note, in the story Hans is the only person on his team that lives in Manhattan, the others primarily live in the Bronx and Queens).

The Chelsea Hotel creates it own unique New York situations, including one of the residents that befriends Hans who is always dressed as an angel, or an odd man who determines he wants to get to know a potential dog before committing to a long term relationship, so he goes on dates with the dog.

My first thoughts when I was reading this book was that it reminded me of the book Saturday by Ian McEwan because it presents real-time thoughtful narrative that relates to the September 11th and terrorism from a British perspective, but when you look at the book as a whole, the better comparison is that this is a modern Great Gatsby.

With it's lyrical writing and descriptive attempt to capture the American Dream how can one not think of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here's an example from the book:

"I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to the pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark."

And perhaps that is where the magic lies in this story that I cannot completly describe, because I've never read anything that truly seemed like it deserved a comparison to The Great Gatsby, and O'Neill Irishman, writing from the perspective of a Dutchman, can capture the magic of Gatsby, then this book deserves praise.

1 comment:

AK said...

The Great Gatsby is my favorite! I guess I'll have to add this one to my "to read" list!