Nether Netherland and Hysterical Cosmopolitanism

If there were such a thing–and undoubtedly there should be–the novel Netherland would have scored the equivalent of a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for Books. In the New Yorker, James Wood said it was a “fictional achievement,” one of the most remarkable “post-colonial books” he has ever read. Comparing it to the Great Gatsby, Michiko Kakutani called it a “resonant meditation on the American Dream.” And in yet a second a review, the Times raised the stakes, calling it “”the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had” about post-9/11 life. Mark Sarvas at the Elegant Variation also praises it as “a Gatsby-like meditation on exclusion and otherness.” And that’s only a cursory summary of what’s out there…

Unfortunately, whatever its merits, the book is none of these things. (Which raises my suspicions about why these critics fell so hard…) To be sure, the author, Joseph O’Neill, is extremely talented at the art of vivid description. He has a painterly eye. Perhaps cinemaphotographic is better. Individual sentences describing city scenes or sunsets or cricket fields or the Hudson River recur in your mind long after you’ve put the book down. He excels at creating a pastoral lyricism amidst the throng of New York. Conde Naste Traveller ought to employ him. And the curious cast of exotic characters–immigrants from just about every corner of the globe–set the stage for a remarkable New York story.

But O’Neill is no dramatist. There’s no story to speak of other than a listless, but thoughtful protagonist learning not to bowl alone (on a cricket pitch). The inciting incident: Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker working in London, receives a phone call from a New York Times reporter asking him about Khamraj “Chuck” Ramkissoon, a wily Trinidadian Hans befriended in New York when his wife, Rachel, estranged him a few years back. The reporter tells Hans that Chuck was recently found dead in the Gowanus Canal. Since he hasn’t thought about Chuck in a long time and since he’s now back together with his wife, the phone call returns Hans to his lonely post 9/11 years in New York. This whole framing sets up the story’s end: the tale will take us from separation to reunion, friendship to loss. The game of cricket in an unlikely place becomes a crucible for Hans’s transformation. But as I said, O’Neill doesn’t execute the story well. It’s a rite of passage about a mid-life sag…but there no rising tension whatsoever. Instead, the story arcs weakly, meandering from flashbacks to flash forwards at a constant rate. It’s easy to get lost, especially if you put book the down (the book has three chapters, but it’s not clear why those breaks are meaningful). And the climax–Hans’ reunion with Rachel–comes so softly and inexplicably, you’re left wondering why Hans would ever want her back other than out of self-pity. A story about how cosmopolitan New York is would have been desirable. A still life painting, however well done, just isn’t worth your attention for 256 pages.

If this were my own Rotten Tomatoes for Books: 60%.

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