Netherland and the Failure of Ambition

In the grand tradition of Louis XIV and certain characters in The Wire, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland declares its own ignominious eulogy. In its final pages, as Hans van den Broek wishes to remember the best in his deceased friend, he casually lets on, “We all disappoint, eventually.”

The novel that Hans narrates suffers that same unfortunate fate.

Netherland begins so auspiciously and evocatively that one can’t help but be disappointed by a stagnation in both style and, more alarmingly, plot. Truth be told, not all that much happens in the 256 pages that constitute Netherland, and that which does tends toward the mundane and the overly introspective. In this manner, the novel fails to build a meaningful connection between its characters and its readers, leaving its eventualities—and many of the events do evolve into eventualities as the novel transpires—flat and unemotional.

Netherland has been compared, at least by The New York Times, to The Great Gatsby—heady territory indeed. O’Neill’s prose doesn’t necessarily disappoint: His descriptions of New York, particularly of its transitional, post-9/11 stage, are nothing short of spectacular:

“Afterward I slipped out onto the balcony and stood there like a sentry. The pallor of the so-called hours of darkness was remarkable. Directly to the north of the hotel, a succession of cross streets glowed as if each held a dawn. The tail-lights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit storefronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown and introduced to my mind the mad thought that the final twilight was upon New York.”

It’s moments like this—in the novel’s first 20 pages—that imbue it with such promise. And it’s moments like this that make it so frustrating that O’Neill can’t lend similar articulation to Netherland’s chief events. For as much as O’Neill imitates Fitzgerald in his prose, there’s an awful lot of Hemingway in the manner in which he constructs his plot. In classic Hemingway style, the novel’s most significant plot points—Hans and Rachel’s reconnection, Chuck’s death—happen off-screen, as it were. We learn about Hans reuniting with his wife a year after it happens; we learn of Chuck’s death because Hans is contemplating whether and how to attend the funeral. (I, for one, have always hated this aspect of Hemingway, but at least it molded with his style; in Netherland, however, it clashes with the long, verbose, Fitzgeraldian sentences, leaving fans of both writers underwhelmed.)

The novel’s treatment of Chuck Ramkissoon is, indeed, its biggest disappointment. Chuck is Hans’s purported friend who is planning to build a cricket stadium that would reinvigorate the game in America and, in the process, unite cultures and perhaps the great divide between the States and the Middle East. Accordingly, Chuck is supposed to be the Gatsby-like figure—one of mystery, of idealism, of the American Dream personified. There are two problems with this: First, the novel isn’t really about Chuck. Hans is its protagonist, and his relationship with Chuck represents, at most, half of the novel’s content. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the novel, though, because of the second problem: I didn’t care for or about Chuck. From his opening speech about cricket through his adventures across New York with Hans to his mysterious disappearance, I never once found myself invested in the character of Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck’s eventual corruption, like most things in the novel, is hinted at before being shown while what motivates him is never fully revealed. His idealism is both over-the-top and unsubstantiated: Whereas Gatsby wanted a girl, Chuck wants world peace, unity, and some cash on the side through cricket—a sport he doesn’t even play (he remains simply the umpire).

Hans, of course, never has a problem with any of this. In many ways, Hans is a lot like Swede Levov of Roth’s American Pastoral: Incapable of making a decision, things happen to Hans rather than Hans making them happen. Unfortunately, unlike the Swede, Hans is the narrator of Netherland, and this inability to form decisive opinions or make strong pronouncements leaves the novel eternally irresolute. Hans is caught in the middle ground between narrator and protagonist: He’s too significant a character to just be the narrator (like Nick Carraway or Pastoral’s Nathan Zuckerman), but he’s not forceful enough to carry the novel as its protagonist.

And while his elegant descriptions of place can be inspiring, Hans remains a detached and cold narrator. Hans speaks perennially from the privileged position of hindsight it seems, and even long-held stories about his youth and his mother in the Hague sound sterile when he relates them in such detached language:

“I stood at the window, waiting for the next arrival of light. The lighthouse had been mesmeric to my boy self. He was an only child and it must be that at night he habitually stood at his bedroom window alone; but my recollection of watching the light travel out of Scheveningen contained the figure of my mother at my side, helping me to look out into the dark.”

Here, Hans comes across as nothing more than a third-person narrator describing his youth as if it were that of a different person (you know, by using the third-person to describe himself). And while this isn’t always the case, it’s the case enough of the time to limit the intimacy of our connection to him. Hans can be frustratingly aloof, and there are too many instances in the novel where you want him, just this once, to give a damn.

This isn’t to say Netherland is a bad book; in fact, it remains expertly written with multiple passages of genuine prosaic splendor, including its final pages. It is just that O’Neill’s novel, like Chuck’s plans, ultimately falls short of its goals. After all, we all disappoint, eventually.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Vaunie on November 24, 2009 at 8:56 AM

    interesting points, but my read is that O’Neill is deliberate in the aloofness he creates for Hans. Hans is a man on a search for himself. He is untethered and cannot connect. We are not even sure why he reconnects with his wife, but we have a vague sense that he knows. In his eloquence, Hans is quite inarticulate… about his own experiences in life. He is detached from himself. O’Neill’s writing is quite intentional as is the novel’s “lack of plot.” If the plot or the style suffer from “stagnation,” then this reader calls that a brilliant literary device.

    Reply

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