One the best articles we’ve read all year is Zadie Smith’s comparison of two books as blueprints for the future of fiction. So we’re going to read the books she discussed, and talk about whether Zadie got it right. The first post in this series will review Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. The second post will focus on Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The final post will rate Zadie’s essay about the two.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is scary good.
Some books are agreeable, functional, and occasionally marked by a stroke of brilliance. But this one flips the paradigm. It’s almost constantly brilliant, with a few places where it’s so incredibly brilliant—in that particular literary way—that it almost becomes absurd.
Netherland is narrated by Hans van den Broek, a Dutch financial baron who lives in London, except for a couple of years when he lived in New York. The years in New York form the basis for the novel. Hans is such a normal, successful guy that he’s almost boring. He studied Classics at Leiden University. He landed a job with Shell Oil. He’s separated from his wife and son. By all rights he should be an upper-class snooze. But he possesses an almost supernatural capacity for literary phrase-making that doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of his background. Right after he describes his career as a stock analyst, he observes that “the smell of grass when mown in May provokes in me pangs of emotion that I still dare not dwell on.” Yeah, it’s that kind of book. Hans gets off the subway at 34th Street and says,
As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers.
On the one hand, Rachel, the narrator’s wife, tells us what a dullard Hans is. She says to him, “You’re like a child. You don’t look beneath the surface.” On the other hand, Hans demonstrates a phenomenal level of self-awareness. And who are we to question it, right? What we demand from Literature with a capital L, above all, is beautiful sentences.
Netherland doesn’t have much of a plot. Hans is at liberty to expound on everything from his relationship with his mother to the strange euphoria that followed the devastation of 9/11. He might amaze you with a casual observation about America’s roots as a Dutch colony, or he might force you to giggle with a high-falutin, but nonetheless effective reflection like this one.
At least twice a day I peered through the French windows and inspected the dirty, faintly glowing accumulation of ice. I was torn between a ridiculous loathing of this obdurate wintry ectoplasm and an equally ridiculous tenderness stimulated by a solid’s battle against the forces of liquefaction.
Ah yes. Solids melting into liquids. Just like our inexorable progress toward the grave!
The plot of Netherland is about Hans’s relationship with Chuck Ramissoon, a charismatic Trinidadian immigrant who dreams of bringing the sport of cricket to New York on a grand scale. When Netherland sticks close to this story, it’s fantastic. Chuck, with his big ambitions and his belief in the founding myths of America, is so unlike Hans that he feels like a separate presence who got caught in the pages of Hans’s book. The story of their friendship allows Netherland to reflect on cricket as a symbol of civilization, on the different kinds of immigrants who have helped to create America, on the effects of 9/11 and the existential fears of living in a big city, and pretty much all of the big themes a novel can address.
There are two reasons why Netherland has been compared to The Great Gatsby. First, because it has a similar cipher as its narrator, and a similar American immigrant with big dreams as its subject. Second, because it’s really fucking good at borrowing and updating the tricks that make Gatsby great. But do we really want our books to nail the literary tropes so darn well? That’s essentially what Zadie Smith asks in her essay. Netherland is so thoroughly literary that reading it diminishes your capacity to recognize how ridiculous a sentence like this is.
It was possible, too, I further speculated, that a father might have done the trick—that is, an active, observable predecessor in experience, one moreover alert to the duty of handing down, whether by example or word of mouth, certain encouragements and caveats; and even now, when I’m beginning to understand the limits of the personal advice business, I am led to consider, especially when I stroll in Highbury Fields with Jake, a skateboarding boy of six these days, what I might one day transmit to my son to ensure that he does not grow up like his father, which is to say, without warning.
It’s a perfectly legitimate sentence, and it expresses a deep and understandable concern about the anxiety fathers feel toward their sons. But for God’s sake! Does he have to start and stop, re-state things, clarify and qualify all the time? Does it have to be so pretty and fussy? When did we agree that this style of writing was the apex of literary achievement?
It gets even more laughable when you line up all the places where Netherland indulges in awful clichés, but gets away with them by acknowledging the fact that they’re clichés. In any other book, if we came across a statement like, “That’s when I hit rock bottom,” we might roll our eyes. But when Joseph O’Neill writes,
I think it’s customary, in the kind of narrative to which this segment of my life appears to lend itself, to invoke the proverb of rock bottom—the profundity of woe, the depth of shit, from which the sufferer can go nowhere but to higher, more sweetly scented places.
we reflexively credit him with manipulating the connotations, and probing the idea of “rock bottom” by explaining it so goddamn nicely. Still, he’s expressing a sentiment that should make us roll our eyes.
Ever been caught between a rock and a hard place?
Another consequence, since we found ourselves in the realm of stock situations, was that I conceived of myself no longer as the idiomatic man who stands between the rock and the hard place but as the more happily placed man who can take it or leave it; “it,” here, being my marriage.
And the novel closes with a brilliant scene in which Hans, Rachel, and Jake ride to the top of a ferris wheel.
A self-evident and prefabricated symbolism attaches itself to this slow climb to the zenith, and we are not so foolishly ironic, or confident, as to miss the opportunity to glimpse significantly into the eyes of the other and share the thought that occurs to all at this summit, which is, of course, that they have made it thus far, to a point where they can see horizons previously unseen, and the old earth reveals itself newly.
For a novel that trucks in symbolism (about America, 9/11, the immigrant experience, etc.), it’s either ballsy or self-defeating to adopt a cynical attitude toward symbolism in general.
Netherland is amazing because it gratifies all of our literary desires. The sentences, the themes, and the unfolding of the tale are all right on. But so far we think Zadie might be right to question whether a book like this is what we need right now. It takes a brilliantly executed novel like Netherland, exemplary of all the virtues we esteem in a work of fiction, to show us how fetishized—and just plain silly—our idea of literary excellence has become.
In Part 2 we’ll see if Zadie is right about Remainder.