Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, is about the multicultural United States after September 11. Memories of that day are often present in the novel. The main character Hans lived with his wife and child near the World Trade Center. They were unable to move back to their apartment for six months after the disaster. His wife is so afraid of another attack, and so enraged at the war in Iraq, that she leaves her husband and moves with their son to England. The ruins where the towers once rose stand in some sort of deliberate relationship to the devastated life of the narrator following her departure.

I found it almost impossible to continue reading this novel when at an early point the narrator discussed the several million dollars he and his wife had squirreled away in investments and bank accounts. How normal and typical are these characters? Hans works in an investment firm. Rachel has some other sort of job. Their lives seem ordinary, typical enough, yet the fact that financial difficulties are not among the challenges they face does make it easier for the author of this novel to focus on personal and multicultural relationships. Life is considerably less complicated when finances are not an issue.

A major element that held my interest, nursed me past my irritation with the affluence of these typical characters, was the narrative voice itself. It's a fluid, natural, engaging voice. The prose style is strong and relaxed, descriptive, introspective, humorous, human. It is one of the main attributes of the novel.

The United States—specifically New York City--in Netherland is portrayed as a center of multicultural life, as the focus of international conflicts (the September 11 attacks and the war in Iraq). It's a life where everything is on the line. Hans' wife decides she cannot countenance living in a nation responsible for the war in Iraq, so she takes their child and moves to England. While the United States stands on the ragged cultural edge of things, England is a safer place. It is where one goes when the battle to survive in the contemporary world becomes too difficult. England is a place of retreat, personal surrender, prepackaged identities, a place where you go when you're old and no longer willing to live on the edge. Hans talks about how Americans move to England and quickly begin adopting British customs and traits, as if they cannot be done too quickly with their other national identity.

Implicit throughout Netherland is the meaning of personal, cultural, and national identity. Hans' friend Chuck Ramkissoon believes his mission is to start an American cricket league. He and the narrator are both cricket fans, and they see the sport as a way of bringing to America some of their own experience. Cricket is a means towards identity for them, especially for Chuck. He is a naturalized U. S. citizen, an avid patriot, a lover of all things American. He sees cricket as a contribution he can make. At the same time, he is a gangster of sorts who collects the proceeds of gaming wagers from various patrons and roughs up those unwilling to pay. Ultimately, he becomes the victim of his double life. This is not giving anything away, as the opening pages of the novel inform us that his body has been identified, washed up in the Hudson River.

Hans himself, along with Chuck Ramkissoon, is a prime expression of this theme of identity. He has moved to the United States from the Netherlands. He becomes a well established and respected financial advisor on Wall Street. He feels a strong kinship with the third world citizens who play cricket in New York. He flies back and forth between New York and London. Finally, he moves to England permanently. He's always shifting identities, nationalities. The game of cricket itself came to many of the countries whose former residents Hans plays it with by England, a colonial power. It's an expression of British colonialism, of the British imperial world. It's a point of irony that Chuck, from Trinidad, and Hans, from the Netherlands, want to bring cricket, a British sport, to the United States as a way of holding on to their own national and cultural pasts.

James Wood in the New York Times Book Review compared Netherland to The Great Gatsby. There are connections. Chuck Ramkissoon himself is much like Gatsby. When he moves to the United States and becomes a citizen, he becomes an American patriot and a protector of tradition. He is a connoisseur of trivial and meaningless information, which he is quick to share. He sees cricket as a service he can do for his adopted nation. Yet under his surface there is another corrupt self that is equally American. Chuck doesn't really see a contradiction between the two personalities he contains, and he expects Hans to accept those divergent selves, once he reveals them. In fact, it is almost as if Chuck reveals his gangster self as a way of threatening Hans after they have had a disagreement. England for Hans is like the Midwest for Nick Carraway, a place to retreat to, a place of surrender.

It's not really clear what this novel is about. After Hans and his wife separate, and their marriage is presumably over, he remains in New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel, continuing to work at his job with the brokerage firm, talking cricket with Chuck. Every second weekend he flies to London to visit his wife and son, but these visits accomplish little. One topic of the novel: what it means to be American. The answer is never clear, and that in itself is the answer—being American is what one understands that term to mean—it's a place to make one's fortune, to live one's life, to make an impact by starting cricket leagues or whatever.

The Chelsea Hotel, where Hans at first lives with his family and then by himself, still exists in the shadow of its famous past. Its tenants are a motley assemblage. Hans befriends a man there who always dresses as an angel. The Chelsea Hotel is a microcosm of the United States, a place where you can make your own identity, be the person you want to be, a place that exists in isolation and separateness from the rest of the world, that infects the world with its ideals and corruption.

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