Why do I keep re-reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland?
I just finished it for the third time. By now, the plot is well-known to me. After 9/11, Dutch banker Hans van den Broek and his wife separate, with Rachel taking their son from New York City and moving back to London. Hans stays in New York, where he rediscovers cricket, and in the process he meets Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams of an America that embraces its cricket-playing roots. “Cricket has a long history in the United States, actually,” says Chuck. “Benjamin Franklin himself was a cricket man.” The book opens with Hans receiving a call in London from a New York Times reporter, telling him Chuck is dead. The news causes Hans to reflect on New York and his relationship with Chuck.
A plot can sustain you for one reading, offering the buzz of what happens next? But after that is spent, where does a book’s energy come from? And why do I keep reading Netherland?
Maybe to prevent another reading, a former student alerted me to an essay by Zadie Smith, “Two Directions for the Novel.” “Here’s someone who doesn’t think Netherland is so great,” my student wrote. What Smith laments is Netherland’s lyrical realism, which, she argues, now dominates the novel landscape. “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition?” she writes. “Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?”
What is lyrical realism? What does it set out to do? Lyrical is defined as “having an artistically beautiful or expressive quality.” So Smith’s complaint, as I interpret it, is that O’Neill beautifies everything. Nothing remains stark. Nothing is just a thing in and of itself, in the vein of the poet William Carlos William and his red wheelbarrow. But a writer is stuck with words, and reality must be covered in language. The question for every writer and reader is: what kind of language?
Let me give you a taste of O’Neill’s verbal beauties.
Here’s Hans, talking about America, compared to Europe: “How little, in the fluidities of my new country, I missed the ancient clotted continent.”
Here’s Hans, talking about New York and the early days of child-rearing: “On summery Pearl or Ludlow or Mott I’d find respite from our apartment and its transformation into a parental coal mine, and walk and walk until I reached a state of fancifulness, of indeterminately hopeful receptiveness, which seemed to me an end in itself and as good as it got.”
Here is Hans, meeting a woman from his past: “Like an old door, every man past a certain age comes with historical warps and creaks of one kind or another, and a woman who wishes to put him to serious further use must expect to do a certain amount of sanding and planning.”
For me, writing like O’Neill’s shreds the mindless trance of habit. It radically and efficiently lays down new neural circuitry and lets me see again. Maybe I have a hefty layer of habit, so the figurative language that O’Neill offers, page after page, is just what I need.
On the other hand, there are times when I don’t want to see reality more vividly. I want to escape it. Reality, after all, can be cold, terrifying. Lyrical realism provides that escape, at least the way O’Neill does it, through simile, metaphor and analogy. The result is a different sort of reality, a reality that is associative. A man as an old door—I see both man and door. The sleep-deprived parenting of a baby as a coal mine.
When I teach Netherland, my students don’t complain that there is too much of this kind of writing. Instead they ask, can you really write like this? Long sentences? Full of imagery and figurative language? How did O’Neill get away with it and not come off as writerly?
They ask because, from what I see in student work, Hemingway and Carver still reign. So does the American distrust of the intellectual. Sentences are mostly simple—a base clause, only—and polysyllabic, Latinate words are avoided. My guess is that social media is putting even more pressure on simplifying sentences.
How does O’Neill get away with writing like this? He creates a character, Hans, who would truly think and see the world this way. Hans is looking back at a particular time in his life, so he has the distance and time for reflection, which allows for more imagery and metaphor and lyrical syntax. Hans is also educated, and—I think this is important—he’s not a native English speaker. “My own way with English she [Rachel] found moving for its clunking lexical precision; and she especially loved for me to spout a scrap of remembered Latin, the more nonsensical the better.” Hans, whose native tongue is Dutch, has brought a heightened attention to the study of his second language.
What can I say? Lyrical writing speaks to me, fills me with awe, inspires me to write better, opens me up. I sent an email to my student. “Thanks for the heads-up. Just want you to know, though, Netherland is staying on my re-read list.”
Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.