Men in White

Benjamin Kunkel

  • Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
    Fourth Estate, 247 pp, £14.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 00 726906 8

‘Netherland’ is an ambiguous word. It evokes, of course, the Netherlands inhabited by the Dutch, one of whom, Hans van den Broek, tells this story of a few late years spent in that New World city founded almost four hundred years ago on Manhattan Island as New Amsterdam, in what was then the territory of New Netherland. But ‘netherland’ could also mean any faraway place, as in those ‘nether regions’ of the city where Hans’s teammates from the Staten Island Cricket Club spend their nights. (Hans spends his nights in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighbourhood hardly described in this book, notable for a high concentration of well-built gay men, new condominiums, art galleries, bank branches and large home-furnishing outlets.) ‘Netherland’ also has sinister overtones of Never Never Land, and sounds like a euphemism for Hades.

The ambiguous title fits a novel remarkable for its complex geographical situation. Joseph O’Neill, with his mixed Irish and Turkish parentage, and a childhood spent partly in the Hague, now lives in New York City. Hans is more simply Dutch, born and raised. His wife, Rachel, is English, though she gives birth to their son in New York, where the bulk of the story takes place. (A neat frame of London days surrounds the portrait of America.) As for Hans’s cricket teammates, they come mostly from South Asia and the West Indies. The presidency of the Staten Island Cricket Club is held by one Chuck Ramkissoon, who, when asked where he is from, replies, ‘Here. The United States,’ though another answer would be Trinidad. Chuck, Hans’s one real New York friend, as well as the novel’s central figure, cherishes the hope of making the quintessentially Commonwealth game of cricket into a commercially viable American pastime. And, in a way, this entrepreneurial gambit of Chuck’s resembles O’Neill’s own undertaking. O’Neill, that is, is working in a recognisably British mode of novel-writing marked by a combination of decorous prose, lyrical flights, well-carpentered plots and occasional injections of noirish material (we learn in the first pages of Chuck’s handcuffed body being retrieved from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal), and he wants to adapt this mode – its exemplar is Ian McEwan – to the American soil of the book’s themes or subject matter: multicultural brotherhood, immigrant self-fashioning in the New World, post-9/11 New York. This compact novel, in which an emotionally buttoned-down new arrival recounts the downfall of another recent transplant who is, by contrast with him, an extravagant dreamer, has won admiring comparisons to that most American of novels, The Great Gatsby. Further associations between the two books may be triggered by the fact that both narrators, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway and O’Neill’s Hans, work in finance, the former in bonds, the latter in oil futures.

So we have a British novel on American themes narrated in English by a Dutchman mostly about his Trinidadian Gatsby, while on another, fainter track of the story, he recounts a period of transatlantic separation between him and his English wife, who, not long after 9/11, returns to London with their young son. And geographical complexity prevails on the local scale, too. Hans’s New York – the city he knows over his years as a single or at least ‘separated’ man – consists for him of Chelsea, where he lives; Midtown, where he works for a brokerage house, an activity he doesn’t dwell on; the isolated borough of Staten Island, accessible from Manhattan only by ferry, where, with increasing concentration and pleasure, he passes long weekend days playing cricket; and the outer or ‘nether’ boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, where he visits the home of Chuck Ramkissoon, accompanies him twice on the shady rounds he makes as some sort of bookie (Chuck’s partner Abelsky introduces a baseball bat into one parley with an associate), and spends a happily debauched evening with Chuck and other local cricket grandees on the occasion of the 2003 Annual Gala of the Association of New York Cricket Leagues. A recording of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ kicks off the event.

O’Neill’s effort to gather such a variety of social spaces under the same Netherlandish banner has something stirring about it. Many of us live, with Hans, this kind of far-flung life, globalised in all its localities, international even on a molecular scale, but contemporary fiction has struggled to keep pace with the aggressive contemporaneity of this way of living. Accordingly, among the most satisfying descriptions in Netherland are those of new phenomena like the satellite images available on your laptop screen from Google Maps. In New York, Hans uses the software to keep vigil over his son’s London bedroom, and later, after his final return to married life in London, he swoops down to haunt the proposed grounds of Chuck Ramkissoon’s never-to-be-built cricket stadium:

I veer away into Brooklyn, over houses, parks, graveyards, and halt at olive-green coastal water. I track the shore. Gravesend and Gerritsen slide by, and there is Floyd Bennett Field’s geometric sprawl of runways. I fall again, as low as I can. There’s Chuck’s field. It is brown – the grass has burned – but it is still there. There’s no trace of a batting square. The equipment shed is gone. I’m just seeing a field. I stare at it for a while. I am contending with a variety of reactions, and consequently with a single brush on the touch pad I flee upward into the atmosphere and at once have in my sights the physical planet, submarine wrinkles and all – have the option, if so moved, to go anywhere. From up here, though, a human’s movement is a barely intelligible thing. Where would he move to, and for what? There is no sign of nations, no sense of the work of man. The USA as such is nowhere to be seen.

The passage is exciting simply because it represents new territory, or at least new subject matter, claimed for fiction. It also allows you to notice the care put into O’Neill’s smallest and most ostensibly casual constructions: the place name Gerritsen testifies to the Dutch origins of New York, while Gravesend recalls the watery conclusion already reached by Chuck, adrift in his canal. Here as well as anywhere one can sense O’Neill’s deftness and poise.

But use your own zoom function to inspect the same page, and some of the weaknesses of the novel heave into view. How quickly the lovingly lingered on field of scorched grass is traded for the cosmic big picture: ‘From up here . . . a human’s movement is a barely intelligible thing.’ In the swift change of scale Hans’s own intermediate position is bypassed. ‘I am contending with a variety of reactions,’ he says on this score, but no sooner is this contest announced than it is abandoned without any specification of the contesting feelings. And so it is with the novel as a whole. Hans as a narrator operates a bit like a malfunctioning camera capable of tremendous long and short-range focus, but unable to yield anything but a fuzzy middle distance. He is certainly given to close observation of colourful characters and exotic scenes; indeed we acquire a much more solid sense of Chuck than of Rachel, and in one scene the immigrant bazaar that is Coney Island is pictured with a vividness never accorded Hans’s own Chelsea or Midtown. Hans can also sometimes post verbal video clips of a startling lyric grace, as when he describes the sight, glimpsed from his office on the 22nd floor of the glass tower where he works, of ‘roving black blooms of four-dollar umbrellas’. (His metaphors, however, are just as often wilful and imprecise: ‘Clouds like rats ran across the sky.’) And, turning his gaze inwards, Hans regularly becomes expansively sententious on humanity at large: when the electrical blackout that engulfs New York in the summer of 2003 induces a binge of spontaneous coupling ‘not seen, I read somewhere, since the “we’re-all-going-to-die sex”’ that followed on the heels of 9/11, Hans tells us he finds the concept of such sex ‘a little hard to accept, since it was my understanding that all sex, indeed all human activity, fell into this category’.

There is something Forsterish about the idea of friendship or love springing up unexpectedly between people, like Hans and Chuck, of widely disparate classes or nationalities. But Hans seems unable to find any communicating passage between his life as a cricketer and friend of Chuck Ramkissoon, and his other life as a financial analyst, husband and father. This wouldn’t matter, or would matter differently, if Hans were an unreliable narrator busy tracing connections he himself is too blinkered or preoccupied to see. Yet we feel that here the limits of Hans’s awareness also mark the limits of O’Neill’s own – an impression reinforced when you read O’Neill’s non-fiction writing and discover that he writes in his own person much as Hans does, with the same slightly old-fashioned decorum, pointillist vividness and weakness for the sententious. In Netherland, narrator and author appear to have the identical prospect before their mind’s eye, but their mind’s eyesight, as it were, remains obstinately farsighted, so that distant but well-defined figures – Chuck with his oratorical penchant and his combination of naivety and scheming, and Hans’s teammates in their brilliant whites who ‘show in the field like flares’ – appear stamped against an indistinct middle ground dominated by the vaguely looming, obscurely perceived shapes of Hans’s work and family. So it is that the novel’s most nearly fantastic elements (cricket in the United States, and the friendship between Hans and Chuck) enjoy a degree of reality missing from the more everyday material of a marriage on the rocks, not to mention Hans’s barely credible job at the brokerage firm.

When, near the beginning of the story, Rachel decides to return to London with their son, it’s clear that safety concerns prompted by 9/11 are mostly a pretext for a separation actually sought on emotional grounds. The nature of these grounds, however, are never clear to Hans or even, behind his back, to the reader, while the explanation for the couple’s ultimate reunion on the other side of the Atlantic and at the other end of the novel seems evasively pat:

She had stayed married to me, she stated in the presence of Juliet Schwarz [the couple’s counsellor], because she felt a responsibility to see me through life, and the responsibility felt like a happy one . . .

I couldn’t speak. My wife’s words overwhelmed me. She had put into words – indeed into reality – exactly how I felt.

A few sentences later, Hans revises his summary of the reunion – ‘she and I had gone our separate ways and subsequently had fallen for third parties to whom, fortuitously, we were already married’ – but this clever way of putting it doesn’t especially clarify the matter, since neither Rachel nor Hans appears to have changed into a third party over the course of the novel. As second parties, they were already vague enough. And the pathos of their separation seems, throughout, to apply to a troubled relationship rather than to theirs in particular. Hans can contemplate marriage generally (as he can death generally), but is at a loss before his own life.

Hans’s work consumes the majority of his waking hours and saps his domestic life (‘At work we were unflagging; at home the smallest gesture of liveliness was beyond us’). Nevertheless he presents his career, when at all, as a course of sheerest passivity:

It was quickly my impression . . . that making a million bucks in New York was essentially a question of walking down the street . . . I too became a beneficiary of the phenomenon, because the suddenly sunken price of a barrel of oil – it went down to ten bucks that year [1998] – helped create an unparalleled demand for seers in my line. Money, then, had joined the more familiar forms of precipitation; only it dropped . . . from the alternative and lucky heavens constituted in the island’s exhilaratory skyward figures.

One doesn’t want to be too hard on this vision of petrodollars from heaven. No matter at what level of annual monetary rainfall, ordinary workaday life, with its cyclical rhythm and technical character (not to mention its frequent unfamiliarity to the writer at his desk), is notoriously hard to depict with the same sureness and interest brought to bear on personal life. Still, it’s not impossible to confer a kind of figurative glow on a character’s daily employment, as when Updike has the young Rabbit Angstrom work as a typesetter in a printing plant; something of Rabbit’s general befuddlement is suggested by the necessity of his setting up the type back-to-front, illegibly, that is, from his perspective. Of course Fitzgerald’s Nick doesn’t lavish any special attention on his own line of work in Gatsby – ‘Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it could support one more single man’ – but one feels that it would now be impossible to simply happen into oil-futures analysis with quite the same unreflecting ease as Nick goes into bonds. A far more competitive – and unstable – financial services industry has put an end to the relaxed hours and mood of the 1920s, and finance is no longer a simple automatism of class. So we feel either that Hans is a man somehow incapable, in spite of his apparent gift for reflection, of thinking about his work, or, more likely, that the author has awarded Hans his job title only as a pretext for his freedom from financial cares. Thus liberated, Hans can concentrate on his batting and his deep thoughts.

The descriptions of cricket are the best thing in the book, even or perhaps especially for an American reader to whom ‘cricket’ is chiefly an insect. It’s a bit like reading about the tea ceremony in Kawabata’s The Master of Go, where ignorance of the rules only heightens the sense of their ritual beauty, or encountering Lawrence’s pre-Chatterley sex scenes, where you know what’s going on emotionally without having any clear anatomical idea. But when Hans’s accounts of the matches tempt him to philosophise, we start to understand why the novel’s cricket scenes, so enjoyable in themselves, are so unsatisfying as they connect (or fail to connect) to the rest of the story. ‘For what was an innings,’ Hans asks, ‘if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and self-mastery, the variable world?’ The trouble is that for Hans the game of cricket masters his (and our) variable and complex world above all by temporarily annulling it. Cricket, for him, is a blissfully discrete and rule-bound enterprise ‘whose separateness was part of its preciousness’. He wonders ‘if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice’ – a reflection that would develop some teeth only if Hans at any time seemed concerned with the world beyond the boundary as a place of injustice, whether of a marital, racial or economic kind. Instead, the glory of cricket seems to depend on a sort of autistic remove from everything else. The camaraderie between Hans and his teammates does not extend into the rest of their lives: ‘It was rare for club members to have dealings that went beyond the game we played. We didn’t want to have any such dealings. When I accidentally ran into one of the guys working a till at a gas station on 14th Street, there was awkwardness beneath the slapping of hands.’

Netherland is too well made a novel not to anticipate and attempt to check most of one’s objections. Several of these emerge, in fact, from the mouth of Hans’s wife (one reason, it may be, why he returns to her with what seems a perfunctory enthusiasm). If we feel that Hans is alive to cricket in a way he is not to anything else, we recall Rachel’s complaint that, as he puts it, ‘I’m liable to misplace my sensitivities.’ If it seems to us that the book accords a reality to Chuck and Hans’s dark-skinned teammates, and to the neighbourhoods where they live, that it withholds from the paler denizens of Manhattan busy at law and finance – in much the same way that poor local folk can often appear especially authentic and vital to metropolitan people suspecting themselves of fakeness and decadence – then we know that Rachel has said something similar: ‘She has accused me of exoticising Chuck Ramkissoon . . . of perpetrating a white man’s infantilising elevation of a black man.’ And if, finally, we feel that Hans’s passion for cricket is a rage for order, a mania for rules, when otherwise he can’t assemble his life into any meaningful narrative, hasn’t he himself remarked: ‘A story. Yes. That’s what I need’?

Without question, Netherland is the product of real intelligence and design, and an unusually well-written book at that, even if the prose shows more belletristic expertise than it does the features of a true individual style. Ultimately, the issue of the novel’s quality, its success, will probably be resolved by something else: namely, by whether the reader considers such things as the novel’s disconnection between cricket and life, the superior reality it confers on more ‘colourful’ people, and the uncomprehended quality of Hans’s work and marriage, to be, above all, formal traits to do with O’Neill’s novel, or psychological traits to do with Hans’s special case. Not that it is ever easy to decide, when it comes to first-person or confessional novels, whether the narrator’s style is a formal matter first, or a psychological one. Does the blank prose of L’Etranger summon the affectless Meursault, or is it the other way around? Does Humbert Humbert’s nympholepsy naturally produce such a fancy prose style, or is it instead that his lust for Lolita furnishes Nabokov’s only means of rendering psychologically plausible and important the mood of sinister exquisitism that he, Nabokov, prefers to adopt? In these happy instances, the question is undecidably chicken-and-egg. The question of priority – style or man? – is moot.

In Netherland, O’Neill’s choices as a writer seem to precede and to shape Hans, and never with real plausibility. It would violate the old-fashioned lyrical decorum of O’Neill’s prose to introduce the sort of therapeutic or neurological language that a contemporary man in Hans’s situation – an unhappy financial analyst recently left by his wife – would be likely to employ in an effort to understand what was happening to him. And it is not clear that the humanistic verities Hans sometimes likes to dispense could survive any discussion, in the same novel, of the financial speculation that he engages in for a living. Money itself is something the novel appears embarrassed by. (It sometimes seems that in the years since the end of the Chatterley ban, the English-language novel has become ever more frank about sex and lust – uptight Hans uses the word fuck without any effect of self-consciousness – while at the same time becoming more and more coy about money and greed.) Even the character of Chuck Ramkissoon looks like a side-effect of a prior choice of novelistic mode: the kind of bright, vivacious figure pronouncing set speeches, outlining quixotic plans and meeting an untimely end (‘It’s the case,’ Hans says, ‘that a person’s premature death brings him into view’) we are more accustomed to finding in novels dating from an era when serious novelists engaged in more confident portraiture than they mostly do today. The reader’s uneasy feeling, about this single well-defined personality in the novel, is that antic Chuck is often something of a caricature of a fictional character. Like the game of cricket itself, he appears here as an island of order and clarity in a sea of vague and seething postmodern phenomena proliferating in all their chaotic digital, social, financial and emotional variety.

In many ways, Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis (2003) seems the complement to O’Neill’s Netherland, and is unsuccessful in a complementary way. DeLillo’s main character, too, lives in Manhattan, has a young wife, and works in finance. But where Hans attends to love and friendship, DeLillo’s Eric Packer is devoid of normal human warmth. And where Hans cannot bring himself to contemplate what he does for a living or to look long and hard at something like a new residential tower rising up (to quote DeLillo) ‘in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass’, DeLillo’s character thinks of nothing but financial processes, and has eyes only for whatever features of New York life vaunt their contemporaneity. The problem is a shared one: though warm-blooded human organisms, on the ancient model, swim through precisely this new urban world of global transactions and glassy-eyed condominiums, it is hard to make both the creature and his environment, the character and his setting, seem real at one and the same time. As a consequence, we don’t quite believe in the life of either Eric Packer or Hans van den Broek; the one seems too futuristic and the other out-of-date, and the exact location of the present moment, as in some excessively literal-minded philosophical discussion, impossible to specify. And yet we know that if we could only connect we would see that the world of financialisation and oil futures is contemporary and coextensive with the world of Hans and Rachel’s separation, and that both of these worlds overlap exactly with the worlds of cricket, Google Maps and sleek new architecture; there is, after all, just the one world or, for the individual, the one life. We also know that originality, in realist fiction, comes not only from capturing what’s historically new but also from correlating novelty with persistent inherited ways of acting, thinking and feeling. But the challenge posed to fictional representation by even the most ordinary contemporary life in New York City (or anywhere similar) may not yet have been met.