The announcement this past week of this year’s finalists for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction drove me to revisit last year’s winner, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which I think still may be the best book written about New York after September 11th.
What does being the best mean? Is it like being the world’s tallest midget? The club of post-9/11 books has some truly awful members, with Don DeLillo’s Falling Man perhaps being the most disappointing.
And, even if it is the best in this category, how does it compare against just regular novels about any old subject?
The answer is that yes, Netherland is probably is the best novel yet written about life in New York after September 11th. And, yes. It’s a mighty fine book when just considered as a novel.
The plot is fairly simple. Hans van den Broek moves to New York from London with his wife Rachel, a very successful lawyer, and their young son. The attacks of September 11th happen. They have marital problems, she goes back to England. He falls in with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure with dreams of making New York the center of the cricket universe, is murdered. Hans moves back to England and reunites with his family.
For those concerned about having the plot spoiled, most of that is spelled out in the first few pages. Hans and Rachel are at home in England when he gets a call from a New York Times reporter telling him Chuck has been killed, his body having been fished out of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.
The problem is that O’Neill, who has born in Holland but raised in Ireland, has written a book more in touch with his Irish roots, with such beautiful sentences that they stop you dead in your tracks, causing you to want to slow down your reading and savor each page.
Why is that a problem? The book is supposed to be told in Hans’s voice and he professes to be filled with a flat affectation common to his Dutch upbringing and a “clunking lexical precision” when it comes to English.
Yet he comes up with sentences like:
“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.”
And, describing a sunset:
“The day, a pink smear above America, had all but disappeared.
So, while the voice of the character doesn’t always fit the character, you read on, forgiving, because O’Neill has painted a lyrical portrait of the American dream and all its shortcomings.
The book begs to be compared to The Great Gatsby, even beginning where Gatsby ends, with the elusive main character dead in the water. And, it’s not a bad thing. This short book is filled with the anxiety so many New Yorkers (I being one of them) felt in the months after September 11.
O’Neill gives several visions of what the American dream can be from that of Ramkissoon, an immigrant from Trinidad, to Hans, the Dutch expatriate who arrives via London. It gives us different takes on what a successful relationship can be from Chuck’s complicated love life to Hans’s relationship with Rachel, which seems to fall apart without much prodding only to come back together, also without much prodding.
Not everything in Hans’s life necessarily makes sense, decisions occasionally appear hasty without much reasoning, but that’s the way it was and the way it often still is. People try. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t.
O’Neill, most definitely, has.