Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

February 13th, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

My, my.

Exploring the themes manifested from 9/11, marital strain, and cricket (yes cricket), Joseph O’Neill has written a damn fine story.

Of course, isolating these basic elements is obtuse and uninformative. What makes Netherland great, which it is, is what makes every great novel great: the writing.

The writing is simple and elegant. Not simple in a choppy Hemingway way, but simple and elegant in an elegant Kundera way. The diction of Netherland is pitch perfect. Every single word hums with the same tone, as if each letter were vibrations from the same tuning fork banged against O’Neil’s big brainy head.

But speaking of Hemingway, though Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, assessed Netherland as having “echoes of the The Great Gatsby,” I found Netherland to be highly reminiscent of the The Sun Also Rises. Post-WWI disillusionment gives way to post-9/11 malaise and bafflement.

But back to the writing. O’Neill gives us weather, mere frozen precipitation, as this: “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.”

Now, I read passages such as that and let it roll around in my frontal lobe like a piece of caramel. Don’t you read something like that in a novel and just think, “There is something going on here?”

Netherland is also full of great characters. By great I do not mean that they seem real. They don’t. If you want “real” people, make friends and talk to your family, don’t read a novel. But the characters in Netherland are fully realized, highly imagined, interesting people. But because they’re in a novel they are doing things and serving functions and reinforcing themes, so that’s not real real. That’s novel real. But man, is it good.

Netherland also contains one of the funniest, most telling and adage-worthy non sequiters that I’ve heard in a while:

“There’s a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.”

Jolly good.

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