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Underground Men

NetherlandNetherland by Joseph O'neill

Reviewed by Alan Hollinghurst
New York Review of Books

What is Netherland, the strange-but-familiar compound that Joseph O'Neill has made the title of his captivating new novel? At its plainest, perhaps, it's a singular bit of the Netherlands, the country from which the narrator, Hans van den Broek, arrived in the late 1990s, via London, as an equities analyst for a major New York bank. That orderly, tolerant, "providential" country, seen on a map with "its streamer of northern isles" like "a land steaming seaward," is the deep field of Hans's memories. The only child of a mother widowed when he was two, he is haunted by scenes from his Dutch childhood and adolescence, which seem to hold the key to his reserved, retentive personality and strangely passive behavior.

But the title touches too on his westward landfall, centuries after the first of his countrymen, in the city that was once New Amsterdam, in the Dutch province of New Netherland. Netherland is a novel of immigrants, not just in the way that any New York novel is likely to be, but as a mesh and blur of displacements and belongings.Once Hans's wife Rachel, an English barrister, has gone back to London, petrified by the fall of the Twin Towers and the depredations of Bush's America, what we see of Hans's life in the city is a sequence of random collisions, of uncertain significance, among people with the story of other places behind them -- whether the sad deranged Turk at the Chelsea Hotel who walks the streets in angel wings, or the polyglot members of the Staten Island cricket team, who "variously originated from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka." Above all it is the story of his dreamlike, Gatsbyesque friendship with a businessman called Chuck Ramkissoon, a shady but charismatic Indian from Trinidad, whose mission is to bring world-class cricket to a Brooklyn field, and thence to broadcast it to the planet.

With a little fricative blur, of course, Netherland is Neverland, the place where such dreams may come about.And the American Neverland has worked, in its way, for Hans: he's very successful (his professional life we take on trust, on the strength of a few office vignettes -- it's not what really interests him); and he's clearly pretty rich, beneficiary of the years when it seemed that

making a million bucks in New York was essentially a question of walking down the street—of strolling, hands in pockets, in the cheerful expectation that sooner or later a bolt of pecuniary fire would jump out of the atmosphere and knock you flat.

But those bountiful years are hidden away in one of the little-examined folds of the narrative, before the events of September 11, before Rachel's flight back to London, taking their young son Jake with her.

So the netherland emerges as the dark reverse of the dream, not the whole large hell of the netherworld -- the novel's natural good taste and Dutch containment are alert against any hint of the grandiose -- but a personal province of it, which is one man's entry into something he never describes as depression, but rather as a "descent into disorder," a fatalistic submission to a shrunken life, a state of unbroachable loneliness and "freezing dismay."

Hans's alienation is helped along by his living in the Chelsea Hotel, which the family had moved to from their Tribeca loft after the terrorist attacks, and where he sticks out as "the crank in the suit and tie" among the transitory zanies and resident bohemians.But the city of New York in general endorses and heightens his inner disorder with sinister intimations. Dining out with his friend Vinay, who writes a magazine column about the city's restaurants ("One night it's Cantonese, then it's Georgian, then it's Indonesian, then Syrian"), Hans is struck by "the seemingly bottomless history and darkness out of which the dishes of New York emerge." Assigned a piece on the eating places of taxi drivers, Vinay takes him on a hellish restaurant crawl, until the night itself

assumed the character of an evil black soup, sampled somewhere along the line, whose bitty, fatty constituents rose sickeningly to the surface before sinking back again into a spoon-deep dark.

Hans keeps seeing the undersides of things not meant to be noticed, mousetraps littering the space under radiators, the "letter-box-shaped crevice" under his armchair on which he fixes his attention when he takes to lying prone on his living-room floor.At the end of a grimly funny scene depicting his attempts to get a US driver's license, with the "dangerous" gleam of power and prohibition showing through the humorless officiousness of the supervisors, he finds himself in a state of "fuming helplessness":

As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square's flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, 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 pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

The evident power of this passage, the subjective seizing of significance in workaday things, the poet's vision, retain the glint of possible comedy (those grapefruit-like taxis, the hapless everyman in a battle with bureaucracy and bad weather).There's a saving wit in O'Neill's accounts of being lost, a cool control in his record of losing control.

He is, throughout, a memorable catcher of movements and appearances -- the brown Hudson, seen from the train to Albany, very still, "glossed in places, as if immense silver tires had skidded there," and later under ice, seen from the West Side Highway:

Ice was spread out over the breadth of the Hudson like a plot of cloud. The whitest and largest fragments were flat polygons, and surrounding these was a mass of slushy, messy ice, as if the remains of a zillion cocktails had been dumped there. By the bank, where the rotting stumps of an old pier projected like a species of mangrove, the ice was shoddy, papery rubble, and immobile; farther out, floes moved quickly towards the bay.

The musical apprehension of rhythm, the pattern of inner echoes, again coexist with the funny bathos of a sharp-eyed raconteur (the slangy "zillion cocktails").

Hans, thirty-three in 2001, studied classics at the University of Leiden, and worked for Shell in The Hague before coming to London in perhaps his late twenties. Nothing is ever said about his accent; presumably like most educated Dutch people he already spoke excellent English. But Rachel comments on his "cut-and-dried Dutch manner," and early on in their relationship found his way with the English language "moving for its clunking lexical precision."

That "clunking" is a sly kind of false modesty. Hans on the page has his stiffnesses, attractively old-fashioned or literary turns of phrase of the kind sometimes found among speakers of a second language.But O'Neill has fashioned a delightfully flexible medium for him, in which the fiction of his writing in a second language is happily forgotten. The age-old conventions of first-person narrative which allow an equities analyst who never reads a book to produce, a short time after the events described, an exquisitely written and artfully structured account of them rightly prevail.

He has a telling eye for the errancy of things normally considered straight: trams "drift" on their rails, a lighthouse beam is a "skittish mile of light," at the cricket field "a man on a lawn mower would wander the acreage lengthwise." When a colleague who's about to be fired comes to Hans's office to tell him, he stands tensely looking out of the window at the "dropping sleet":

His skinny, hairy hands were in the pockets of his pants, gripping and gripping something. Not knowing what to say, I got up and stood next to him, and for a while we surveyed, twenty-two floors down, the roving black blooms of four-dollar umbrellas.

These roving, wandering things partake, of course, of the quality of thought that is brought to bear on them, the umbrellas a memorable image for the abstracted mind that doesn't know what to say about something that matters, a Hokusai moment lovely in itself, but psychologically acute and subtly apt to the book's larger picture of our ability to drift sideways in the face of our great crises.

Netherland has a beguiling lightness and mobility to it, the tragical-historical tactfully varied with the comical-pastoral. Its structure is one of continuous alternation, in which the weight of linear narrative is shifted and variegated by time jumps and flashbacks. O'Neill gives us the last things first, showing Hans and his wife back together in London before they've been seen to part in New York, and Chuck's body rotting in the Gowanus Canal before he's first been brought to life. A reviewer at least gives little away by telling the story, though the exact chronology can be a little hard to hold in mind.

The main narrative covers several years, Hans for part of them flying back and forth between post-traumatic New York and London, his rainy "matter-of-fact city," on miserable fortnightly visits to his wife and child; sometimes it follows memory into luminous episodes from his Dutch childhood, subtle inquiries into the role and presence of his mother in his life. The effect is to refresh our interest in each strand at each reappearance, at the cost of a more gripping narrative momentum; but O'Neill achieves this effect so ably and intriguingly that it's hard to object. It might be felt that the complexity and economy of the structure lessen the book's emotional impact. But it would be equally true to say that its large American themes are handled with a deftness and restraint that can elude American writers who make a more solemn and determined assault on them: Netherland instinctively shuns the grandeur of Don DeLillo's Underworld -- of which its title is, after all, a modest and partial paraphrase.

And instead of baseball, cricket! This itself is such a quirky choice of subject for a novel set in New York that it casts a playful, almost whimsical light over the often somber narrative.Of course, not everyone warms to cricket, or feels, after a puzzled hour or two of watching, the seduction of its particular tensions and tempi. When he played in England, Hans recalls, Rachel made only one brief attempt at it. "'How can you bear it?' she blurted. 'All that standing around.'" Then, "not wanting to spoil my afternoon, she said, 'Although you do look nice in that hat.'"

Even those bored silly by cricket may like the look of it, on a county ground or village green, its consoling air of old-fashioned order and hushed concentration.For some reason, the rules seem unusually hard to explain, even to willing learners. Take the English national sport to America, where the rules must appear a surreal and profitless distortion of baseball, and the problem is greater still. As Hans says, "I can't count the number of times I, in New York, fruitlessly tried to explain to a baffled passerby the basics of the game taking place in front of him." But though Netherland is in part about the friendship between two cricket-lovers, cricket-baffled readers may be reassured that not a single match is described in any detail.

The poetry of cricket, at least in its English incarnation, is a fairly threadbare thing, and even the fastidious O'Neill touches for a moment on the commonplace with his raptures at "the smell of grass when mown in May" and the "warm beer" drunk "on the steps of ancient wooden pavilions": this vision of something "agreeable, English, and enchanting" comes dangerously close to the erstwhile British Prime Minister John Major's much-derided encomium to the England of "long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs."And then, agreeable and enchanting -- surely one of these English compliments, lukewarm or gushing, but not both? But O'Neill quickly counters with his own sharp sensory evocations, of an old trunk whose "latches flipped up with a snap, releasing that bitter marmalade odor of neglected cricket apparel," or of the disgusting "gluey, cheesy" sandwiches relished between innings.

The nice twist, typical of the novel's odd angles, is that Hans discovered "the bliss of cricket" in Holland, where his early successes on the field "are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me"; and that New York cricket, with which he fills his suddenly directionless and unpeopled spare time, is a shocking affront to the aesthetics of cricket as played in England or Holland.At Walker Park in Staten Island there is no chance whatever of that "finest, most fragile area of grass known to sports: a cricket square"; here the pitch is made of clay, covered in coconut matting, the outfield is wild and weedy, making long low drives across it impossible, and the irregular boundary is defined by trees. It is quite a breakthrough for Hans, almost a shift in his national identity, when late in the book he is able to abandon his correct and unavailing repertoire of ground-strokes for a good American swipe in the air.

It's at his first game at Walker Park, against a team from St. Kitts, that Hans meets Chuck, who is umpiring, and who deals magisterially with a very un-English incident when a St. Kitts supporter ambles onto the pitch to resolve a dispute with a loaded gun.After the match Chuck delivers a protracted homily on the English expression of disapproval, "It's not cricket," and speaks of the need for cricketers to command respect if the game is to get ahead in America. "It doesn't matter that cricket is the biggest, fastest-growing bat-and-ball game in the world. None of it matters. In this country, we're nowhere. We're a joke." On the ferry back to Manhattan the two men meet again, and so begins a strange, adventitious relationship that like cricket itself has an ability to fill up Hans's empty time. Hans calls on Chuck at the offices of Chuck Cricket, Inc., a dazzlingly described scene with the bedlam of Arab and West African street vendors outside like "a cold Senegal" and a chaos of overheard phone calls within.

Two things quickly emerge which Hans seems not to mind. One is that Chuck, twenty years his senior, is a monumental talker, of encyclopedic range and unstoppable fluency. "Let me enlighten you," he will say, and launch into a long rolling disquisition on the numbers and growth rates of different immigrant populations, on the bald eagle as an American symbol, or on his own story, his Trinidadian boyhood, and how he got started in business in New York. "Do you know about Chadwick?" -- and then he's off, in the grip of "that explanatory fluency of his," about the man who wrote the rules of baseball. Sometimes Hans says yes, he does know, but Chuck tells him anyway. "I drove and Chuck talked -- incessantly, indefatigably, virtuosically." Many pages are covered by these "lulling monologues," which reveal Chuck as the obsessive historian of his adoptive country.

Now and again there's a sense of being given too much information, as it might be on the racial background of occupants of a particular Trinidadian village, their names, their trees, the deeds on their properties. It's an inevitable problem of first-person narration, how to bring in material that lies outside the narrator's experience; and an unstoppably self-confident expositor, prone to "Napoleonic excess" in his perorations, is as good a solution as any. At times, though, it seems O'Neill himself is slightly embarrassed by such heavy recourse to the device, the carting in of so much thematically apt stuff."Chuck was a know-it-all," Hans says crossly, "on everything from South African grass varieties to industrial paints. His pedagogic streak could be gratuitous."The reader may give a reluctant nod of agreement.

The other thing about Chuck, which the passive and distracted Hans seems barely aware of, is that many of his business dealings are "not cricket" themselves. Those long captive drives in Chuck's car, under the guise of giving Hans practice for his driving test, are really a cover for collecting money in an illegal lottery, like the Trinidadian "weh-weh" Chuck learned as a boy. Hans is introduced to a gross and violent Russian business partner of Chuck's, Abelsky, and later comes in on the end of a scene in which they have beaten someone up. That Chuck should quite soon be murdered, tied up, and thrown into the Gowanus Canal is not a great surprise.That Hans should be quite so obliging a dupe perhaps is."You silly goose," Rachel says at the end; "this man was a gangster."

We never find out why Chuck was murdered, or indeed what, beyond a good listener and fellow enthusiast, he looks for in Hans himself.Hans is a respectable banker, who feels his new friend may regard him as a catch, someone to be shown off. But beyond a bit of driving and mowing of the cricket pitch, Hans in fact does nothing for him. The friendship is both charged and oddly vacant. "He must have valued you," says Rachel at the end, which seems confirming and makes Hans happy; until she adds, "I mean you were valuable to him. He wasn't interested in you.... Not really. Not in you."

Might something similar be said about Hans's own attitude toward Rachel? She's valuable to him in the obvious ways that a wife and co-parent is, but he rarely praises her or gives us, or himself, much reason for liking her, and since for most of the book the two of them are apart she appears as an unsympathetic opponent, chilling and closing down any potential rapprochement with her tight legalistic mind. She has been from the start a person who "spoke in complete sentences and intact paragraphs and almost always in the trope of the tiny, well-constructed argument." The scenes between them can be grippingly sad, and O'Neill's powers of observation make the "helplessly brisk" Rachel vivid, waggling "her lowered chin to relax the solid orb of tension that was invariably buried at the junction of her neck and right shoulder." A lot depends on Rachel, and there is certainly a lot of feeling about her here, but rather a lack of feeling for her. She too is going through a crisis in the book, but it seems beyond the usually sensitive Hans to enter imaginatively into it.

It is admittedly a privilege of the first-person narrator not to understand other characters in his own story; his method is a subjective one, prized for its lifelike acknowledgment that other human beings are a mystery. Even a Nick Carraway–type narrator, whose prime role is as an observer of others, can only ever offer partial truths about them.Hans, both subjective and sharp-eyed, gives a lively if unsurprising portrait of a marriage going wrong, and somehow more wrong than he'd liked at first to admit.It's only halfway through the novel, when Hans is back in London on one of his fortnightly visits, and a modest attempt to speak tenderly to Rachel goes instantly awry, that he opens a door on a long-term misery barely hinted at before, "the two New York years in which she withheld from me all kisses on the mouth," her

fear of being drawn into a request for further tenderness, a request that could only bring her face-to-face with some central revulsion, a revulsion of her husband or herself or both.

It spools out, in long, rhythmical, cumulative sentences, for a page and a half, and then it's closed down, as abruptly as it has arisen, and never really looked at again.

Why is this dysfunction in their marriage, long predating the crisis of 2001, kept back for so long, and then so swiftly repressed?Is it in fact a subtle part of the portrait of a man in denial about deep problems in his life? Or is it a sign of the author's unwillingness to do justice to them? The effect is to make the snappy, uptight, withholding Rachel too typical a figure of female cussedness for so original a book, and their getting back together, with the help of a marriage guidance counselor, is the least interesting part of it.

The interesting relationship is the one that, in a way, matters less, between Hans and Chuck, those two very different immigrants, in their separate but mutually answering American dramas. At the novel's opening, Chuck is already half-forgotten, merely "a friend during my final East Coast summer...a transitory figure." At the end, when Chuck's murder is being investigated, it appears that Hans has "no personal connection at all to the relevant facts. Chuck Ramkissoon was involved in things categorically beyond my knowledge of him." Yet during the period when Hans feels shrunken and lost, Chuck's vision of American cricket gives meaning, or an illusion of it, to his life.That Chuck is not "interested" in him personally is almost a relief to Hans; it seems part of the reserve in human relations that he takes as a proper sign of respect.The friendship has no formal status, unlike a marriage, but its potential is all the more fascinatingly undefined. When it's over, Chuck is "in memory, weighty. But what is the meaning of this weight? What am I supposed to do with it?" Hans is left, as we are, with the trace of its unassessable significance.

Alan Hollinghurst was born in 1954 in Gloucestershire, England, and attended Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the author of the novels The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Spell, and the The Line of Beauty, as well as of a translation of the play Bajazet by Racine. A former staff member at The Times Literary Supplement, Hollinghurst is a frequent contributor to that and other publications, including The Guardian. Hollinghurst's fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. He lives in London.

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2 Responses to "Underground Men"

  1.  
    s h a r o n September 15th, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Hollinghurst, is both delightful ("cricket-baffled readers may be reassured that not a single match is described in any detail") and profound:
    the memory of Chuck--as well as Hans' own marital problems--is "fascinatingly undefined" in the narration of both.

    Such reviews, which reveal the perceptual and literary depth of the reviewer, always amaze me. How do people learn to write and think like Hollinghurst? To be sure, he has an impressive pedigree.

    All this said, however, it frequently occurs to me that should I read the reviewed book, I shall find it a disappointment in comparison with the review.

  2.  
    Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » Netherland by Joseph O’Neill October 18th, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    [...] Alan. “Underground Men.” Rev. of Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill. New York Review of Books 25 September [...]

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