Reviewed by Siri Hustvedt
Sunday, June 1, 2008
By Joseph O'Neill
Pantheon. 256 pp. $23.95
In Joseph O'Neill's third novel, Netherland, there are two great love objects: the city of New York and the game of cricket. Hans van den Broek, the novel's Dutch narrator, seeks solace in both the place and the sport after September 11, 2001, when he finds himself adrift in the city. We know he watched the destruction on television in the midtown office where he works, that the trauma that followed is the ostensible reason for his foundering marriage, and that the catastrophe forced him, his wife, Rachel, and young son, Jake, out of their Tribeca loft and into the Hotel Chelsea. When Rachel leaves for London with Jake, Hans slides into a state of depressed alienation, which is relieved, in part, by playing cricket in the city's outer boroughs with like-minded comrades from the West Indies and Asia.
On one of these excursions, Hans meets a Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon. This hyper-articulate, bamboozling entrepreneur with a grand dream of building an American cricket arena holds a steady if rather vague fascination for Hans, and the two fall into an unlikely friendship.
From early in the novel, we know that Hans is reunited with his wife and son in London and that Ramkissoon's body has been fished out of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Netherland doesn't turn on plot. In both form and content, it questions the idea that a life can be told as a coherent story. It is organized not chronologically but as a series of memories linked by associations. For example, Hans remembers a day during his last cricket-playing summer in the city:
"This time Chuck drove. It was a fine day. The East River from the Brooklyn Bridge was a pure stroke of blue.
"I thought of my mother, whom I thought of whenever I crossed that bridge.
"Two weeks after Jake was born, she made her first and last visit to America."
Hans goes on to recall bicycling with his mother to Brooklyn, a memory that summons his boyhood in The Hague delivering papers, his mother filling in for him on the route and meeting her "gentleman friend," Jeroen, which then evokes an encounter with Jeroen after his mother's cremation, upon which Hans returns to Chuck, who is still at the wheel and headed for Green-Wood Cemetery.
Through the voices of his characters, O'Neill articulates the problem of a narrative self. Is there really a unified self that moves through time or are we fragmented beings yoked together by a story we tell ourselves? "Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations," says Hans. "I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now." Rachel, on the other hand, questions "the whole story" of her marriage to Hans. And Eliza, Chuck's mistress, who makes a living putting photographs in order for clients, explains her job with the sentence, "People want a story." But even after the rift with his wife has been repaired, the hero confesses, "Rachel saw our reunion as a continuation. I felt differently: that she and I had gone our separate ways and subsequently had fallen for third parties to whom, fortuitously, we were already married."
The rendering of the narrator's domestic problems and their happy resolution is far less compelling than the intensely observed descriptions of the "nether regions" of the boroughs and the cricket played in them by immigrants. On the field Hans discovers a "continuum of heat and greenness." After the massive destruction of 9/11, the game and its repetitions bring him a sense of order and justice. Cricket, after all, is the same game he played in his childhood as his mother sat and watched him. It has the same rules and the same equipment, and he is playing it in a wounded, but still spectacular New York, a place upon which O'Neill lavishes his narrator's most intense memories and his own elegant prose. It is spring in Chelsea, and Hans, like the city, is stirring to life:
"The blind people were now ubiquitous. Muscular gay strollers were abroad in numbers, and the women of New York, saluting taxis in the middle of the street, reacquired their air of intelligent libidinousness. Vagrants were free to leave their shelters and, tugging shopping trolleys loaded with junk -- including, in the case of one symbolically minded old boy, a battered door -- to camp out on warmed concrete."
At times, the novel's exacting descriptions felt less like a man's memory than a tour of his consciousness, and I wondered why a particular scene merited such detail, but Hans is a person who has lost his bearings after a shock and his myriad perceptions bear the stamp of this estrangement. Always sensitive and intelligent, Netherland tells the fragmented story of a man in exile -- from home, family and, most poignantly, from himself. ·
Siri Hustvedt's most recent novel is "The Sorrows of an American."