On Netherland

18Jan09

In which The Gay Recluse recommends a book about loss.

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In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, we meet a narrator “Hans” — a Dutch expat originally from The Hague — who both at the beginning and the end of the story (this is not a spoiler, because we learn this in the first few pages) appears to”have it all”: relative youth and good health; an intelligent, beautiful wife; a well-mannered, inquisitive son; and a high-paying job as an oil analyst for an i-bank. The difference between the beginning and the end is that — besides the fact that his son is now a boy instead of a toddler — the narrator has moved to London from New York City, where most of the book is set.

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What transpires in this interval are the events with which we are all on very intimate terms, i.e., 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the power-outage/blackout when everyone “felt good” about the city again, and the floats that went crazy a few years later on that windy Thanksgiving Macy’s parade. Fortunately for us, O’Neill does not devote a lot of time describing any of this, but simply uses these circumstances to frame a generally bleak mood made all the bleaker by the fact that — for mostly inexplicable reasons (at least on the surface) — Hans’ life is falling apart. In the wake of 9/11, his freaked-out wife decides to move back to London but basically disinvites him from coming along, leaving them in a period of indeterminate reassessment that feels very much like a state of purgatory from which he might never emerge. Meanwhile — though he continues to rake it in at work — his enthusiasm for the job is waning, and his only friend gets the axe.

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What happens as a result of all this is that Hans goes for a walk on the wild side, relatively speaking. But unlike so many characters throughout the history of New York — both real and imagined — Hans does not turn to the time-honored traditions of drugs, alcohol or sex (well, he has a lil sex) to assuage his demons, but instead — and this, a big part of the appeal of this book — becomes obsessed with cricket, a game he played in his youth. At a match in Staten Island, he serendipitously meets the other most important character of the book, a Trinidad native — a man in his fifties named Chuck — who lives in the middle of Brooklyn.* Chuck is something of an archetypal Brooklyner, i.e., a wheeler-dealer with a million scams and pipe-dreams who drives a Cadillac, knows enough about many things to sound intelligent (but is never pretentious) and ultimately seems maybe benign, so that we can understand the allure he exerts on the more staid (but increasingly desperate) Hans, even as we also grasp his reluctance to get too involved. In short, with Hans, O’Neill offers us a classic case of a character whose head says “no” but whose heart says “yes.’

*We used to call the neighborhood “Beverly Square West” and, as a result having recorded two albums there, recognized many of the streets O’Neill describes — Cortelyou, Ocean Parkway, Coney Island Avenue, Flatbush — and remarkably or not, even some of the individual houses!

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While this is perhaps not the most elaborate structure, O’Neill adorns it with exquisite detail, so that we are continually focused on the lush, insightful prose, much of it used to describe New York — but without any trace of nostalgia — and the rest to deconstruct both the attraction and ambivalence Hans feels for Chuck, while weaving into this narrative memories of his childhood and — finally — the continuing tension with his wife. O’Neill’s dexterity in this regard is particularly important — and remarkable — because none of the characters is particularly “likable,” i.e., Hans — except for his strange obsession — is a tepid drink of i-banking/Tribeca-loft-owning water, while his wife (even from London) tends toward the shrill/unfeeling/politically correct, and Chuck is just a little too sleazy for us to invest in.

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But we were gripped anyway; besides the fact that O’Neill knows how to deliver a good story, what ultimately interested us was the idea that it could basically be read as “gay,” even though any such context (like so much in our society) is buried 100 miles beneath the surface of Hans’ carefully constructed veneer (i.e., there’s not even the slightest acknowledgment of any homo-attraction anywhere, although there are enough “gay” symbols and peripheral characters to keep the thesis afloat, as it were). Still, the fact remains that this book is primarily about the obsession of one man for another, with the former representing everything conventional (and most often, tedious) about society, and the latter offering a window into the far-more-exciting-albeit-dangerous “other” (which besides obv ethnic/class differences extends to the sexual to the extent that Chuck is very open about having a wife and a mistress.)

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It was for this reason, when — at the end of the book — Hans returns to the fold (i.e., to his wife and child in London, a city that essentially bores him), and despite his own protestations of hope and redemption, we are left with a bittersweet sense of loss, as if during his interlude in New York, he had finally managed to kill that part of himself that was most alive.



One Response to “On Netherland”

  1. Netherland sounds quite interesting, the more for its seemingly
    “buried” action. So much of what we see these days in our art is “surface.” Do you sometimes think, Matt, that “gay” might often — well, sometimes — be more like another word for “pansexual”?


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