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? Continue reading
Some people’s hearts beat faster when handed a bursting bouquet of flowers. For others, it’s chocolate. But for me, it’s metaphors. When I read one, something inside alights, as if a spark flew off the page. There’s a sense of surprise and also recognition, as if I’m simultaneously seeing something new and also recognizing something I’ve always known.
Gertrude Stein once wrote about the difficulty of writing in a period of late language, when readers have inherited so much good writing. It seems to me good metaphors are a way to address this late language problem.
A metaphor consists of an object (A) and an image (B), likening A to B, with B heightening the reader’s sense of A. “Simply stated, a metaphor is a riddle, since if the object is clear, the reader always asks how is A like B,” writes Stephen Dobyns in Best Words, Best Order. And who can pass up a riddle? Before you know it, your mind is scrambling to find the answer. To write a successful metaphor is to engage the reader and enlarge the story. Metaphors “float a rival reality,” writes James Wood in How Fiction Works. “Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or the story.”
Nearby there’s a house half standing. Most of the roof is gone, there are no front stairs. The windows are smashed and ivy has claimed a wall. When I drive by, I always slow down. Last time I saw among the weathered gray planks specks of bright yellow—the color that the house used to be.
The half-existing house captivates me. I’m reminded of Louise Gluck’s essay, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” in which she talks about the power of the unsaid in poetry. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”
Many aspects of writing my novel The Translator were hard, but one of the most difficult was depicting the ancient Japanese theater art of Noh. Most Western readers have never watched a Noh play, with the actors hidden behind wooden masks and moving in a refined, stylized way, speaking a stilted, almost unintelligible language.
I threw myself into that scene, trying to write the sensation of sitting through hours of Noh—some productions last all day. Because it’s a pivotal moment for my main character, Hanne, she had to watch the same plays twice. Not only did I grapple with depicting this foreign art form, but I also had to convey the experience differently, the second time round.
I head into the bakery. The matronly woman stands behind the glass display in a frilly white apron with a little hat on her head. Sugar dusts her upper lip. Eclairs, cheesecake, apple fritters, madeleines, and chocolate tarts take center stage. Tucked in the back, behind the fancy and glamorous, sits an unadorned angel food cake. And suddenly I’m thinking about my dad, because each and every birthday, he has an angel food cake. No gifts, no hoopla, just cake. He’ll have exactly one piece, topped with sliced strawberries, the foamy white cake blossoming red.
The cake and the immediate memories of my father bring to mind the 18th century philosopher and psychologist David Hartley, who came up with the Doctrine of Association. Hartley noticed that when we encounter two things in close proximity, we recall one of those things when we encounter the other. Writers use this tendency of the mind to link images together to generate a profusion of implications and associations. So when Proust’s narrator eats a madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, he suddenly remembers those Sunday mornings with his Aunt Leonie, who dipped her madeleine in her tea and offered it to him.
There’s a song on the radio, and so quickly it burrows in, all the way in, the low notes and high notes. They are strumming along to some innate rhythm in your brain, or maybe your heart, but you don’t mind. You love this song, like a companion, a best friend, murmuring right along with the swish of your blood, the inhale and exhale of your breath. It makes you happier to be singing this song, even though, when you listen to the words, you realize it’s incredibly sad.
This is how I feel reading Melanie Rae Thon’s writing. Her sentences possess the quality of a beloved, great song, with an almost alchemic quality of tunneling in. You carry them around for days and days, happily, because something is happening: you are more open, exposed, feeling the world profoundly.