Sunday, June 21, 2009

Finally got to Netherland

Certain topics in novels don't appeal to my sensibilities at all. Often, when the following themes are mentioned in the novel, I don't even bother to read it:

* Cricket
* 9/11
* Immigrants in NYC
* The American dream
* Despair, loss, and exile
* Trinidadian gangster who run a betting operation
* A character whose surname begins with "van der" (a la Serena van der Woodsen)

Joseph O'Neill's Netherland has all these, but it's one of the best novels I've read this year. Why then, you'd probably ask, did I pick this up in the first place? Well, it certainly didn't help that it won the Pen/Faulkner award and was named the best book of 2008 by the New York Times (with a glowing review by no one else but Michiko Kakutani). Also, when the shortlist for the Booker prize was announced last year, a lot of people raised hell because Netherland wasn't in it. O'Neill's novel was probably the most acclaimed novel last year. It was also compared favorably to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

I haven't read The Great Gatsby, but if it involves a man going through a personal crisis and forming doomed relationships with the people he meet along the way, then the comparison is merited. It's a beautiful book about Hans van der Broek, a financial analyst from London who gets transported to New York with his lawyer wife and his son. The van der Broeks were in NYC when 9/11 happened. It is this event that causes a strain in Hans's relationship with his wife Rachel. When Rachel decides to return to London, Hans is left alone in the hotel where they were temporarily relocated after 9/11. It is during this time that he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidad-born immigrant/gangster/philosopher who exposes Hans to a less-explored side of the immigrant experience.

Hans and Chuck meet at a cricket match, one where Chuck served as the umpire and mediated between two arguing players. They become inseparable after that. Eventually, Chuck uses Hans as an unofficial escort in his betting operation among other immigrants. While this mafia-like theme would be responsible for Hans's severing of their relationship, it is the element of the sport cricket that O'Neill uses to full effect throughout the novel. You don't need to have a thorough understanding of the sport though to appreciate the novel; O'Neill doesn't even go into its technical details. O'Neill uses the sport as a device: no matter how much immigrants force much of their culture into their American experience, they end up failing. In the same way that Americans never embrace cricket as a team sport, no matter how popular it may be in other countries. "It's not cricket," as the English would say when something goes against a social norm.

O'Neill romanticizes neither 9/11 nor the immigrant experience. The events of 9/11 proved disastrous for Hans's marriage, especially when Rachel expresses her strong views about America's reasons for going to war. The immigrant in Netherland is fundamentally complex -- Hans was born in Netherlands, moved to England, and transported to the US. This complexity adds a fresh perspective on how people view the lives of immigrants. When in New York, Hans can never claim to be a struggling immigrant for prosaic reasons: he's white, he's well-educated and successful in his career, and he doesn't come from a third world country. Nevertheless, the reader is exposed to the wide spectrum of the immigrant experience in Hans's everyday dealings with the people around him.

Netherland is one of the most intelligent and emotionally wrenching novels published recently. O'Neill's writing is both lyrical and vivid, transporting you across continents and differing timeframes. The reader may feel that he's holding one of those non-linear novels; O'Neill juxtaposes past scenarios into the present many times througout the novel. But this brilliant technique doesn't take away the rewarding experience of reading this textured, highly nuanced, and illuminating novel.

Read this novel if:
  1. You plan to read just one book this year.
  2. You've lived in another country.
  3. You're curious as to why some countries love cricket.


line of flight said...

I'd recommend the filmic ethnography of "Trobriand Islander Cricket" for a more definitive provision for people suffering No. 3.

Diane said...

great review; another book added to my never ending TBR list; Thanks