When I first read about “Netherland” it was presented as a 9/11 novel. This is not entirely the case. In fact, 9/1...more “How do you re-imagine your life?”
When I first read about “Netherland” it was presented as a 9/11 novel. This is not entirely the case. In fact, 9/11 the day barely figures into the plotline at all – it is the tumultuous after-effects of 9/11 that are explored in Joseph O’Neill’s infinitely clever, if flawed, novel. At the outset we meet Hans van den Broek in present-day London, where he has recently relocated in order to rejoin his wife and son after a trial separation. He gets some sad news regarding Chuck Ramkissoon, a former friend of his from his days as a single man reeling from 9/11 angst and his family’s abrupt departure, news which sets Hans off on the reverie that is the plot of “Netherland”. In his mind he retraces the years after that fateful September in 2001, when his happy marriage began to crack and, literally, split apart, he lost interest in his successful career, and a desperate loneliness led him into a friendship with the charismatic but morally suspect Chuck Ramkissoon. Through Hans’ odyssey O’Neill does not explore 9/11 so much as he explores life in the post-9/11 world. But that is not all; O’Neill also delves deeply into the immigrant experience and the psychological effects of adopting another country as your own.
“It is truly a terrible thing when questions of love and family and home are no longer answerable.” After finding himself abandoned and confused, Hans begins a quest to rediscover himself. It all starts with something most New Yorkers – most Americans, in fact – would not even notice in their everyday life: cricket. Hans discovers a cricket league formed mostly by cab drivers and such who moved to the US from countries where cricket was a regular pastime. Hans has been unmoored in his own life, so he welcomes the opportunity to revisit a beloved sport and, through it, he attempts to put his life back into perspective – to regain the sense of control that has been stolen from him (“what was an inning if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and self-mastery, the variable world?”). Hans quickly discovers that cricket in New York is very different from the European version of the game he is accustomed to, and with this metaphor intact O’Neill uses American cricket to explore the larger theme of immigration: what compromises are made, what are the sacrifices, and what aspects of the self are lost when one moves from one country to another? What does one find? What are the gains? It’s actually rather fascinating. Were this and Hans’ desolation as he wanders alone in the city the primary focus of the novel it would have been better.
Unfortunately, O’Neill is more interested in introducing Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian émigré who schemes to bring cricket to the forefront of the American consciousness, and a fortune to himself in the process. His is the more traditional, prosaic tale of one man’s desperation for the American dream – heightened by the fact that as an immigrant, Chuck feels like he is only seeking what he was promised, but nevertheless the plotline feels stale and unimaginative. And that is particularly disappointing because the rest of “Netherland” sparkles with originality and wit. When it inevitably comes to light that Chuck has been dealing with shady characters to make his American dream a reality, sealing his fate once and for all, it is not terribly surprising or compelling. It’s too fitting, really.
“Netherland” is at its best when it is telling Hans’ story, and it is unfortunate then that the bulk of it is tied up so intimately with Chuck’s story – because Hans’ journey is infinitely more effecting and touching. Still, O’Neill proves to be a remarkably talented writer, and it will be interesting to see what his next move is.