Last week, the Telegraph published an article on Joseph O’Neill, his novel, Netherland (out in paperback in the UK this month), and its failure to win the Man Booker Prize. Commentary on the American literary world from British media outlets is always interesting; it often seems to be comprised of equally misplaced expressions of disgust and awe.
In this article, the awe comes from the fact that “the American literary world can fall head over heels for a book about a scruffy, expat New York cricket club… a novel about immigrants and written by one.” The disgust, we think, is present in the implication that this fact demands awe. First of all, the American love affair with immigrant literature is well documented. Second of all, it’s not the cricket Americans have fallen love with, as the article goes on to admit.
Netherland is as much a love letter to New York City as it is a love letter to cricket. The guileless wonder with which the protagonist, Hans, views the city (even the outer boroughs!) is what we think has drawn the comparisons to The Great Gatsby; the cheerful indifference with which Hans observes a party in the lobby of his residence, the Chelsea Hotel, mirrors Nick Carraway’s bemused anthropological observations at one of Gatsby’s fetes. It’s ironic that O’Neill states he wanted “Americans ‘to grapple with the alien’” when, in fact, the book contains so much that is familiar to residents of Gotham.
In explaining his alien-grappling idea further, O’Neill goes on to echo one of his characters in suggesting that if Americans can’t understand cricket, how can we understand the political and cultural machinations of other countries? Although he began writing Netherland before 9/11/01, and he expresses some squeamishness at being dumped into the “post 9/11″ novel pile, the impact of that date’s events on New York is what makes O’Neill’s themes work. It provides Hans’ wife with a catalyst for their separation, underscores the melancholy with Hans views his New York life in her absence, and provides a larger context for Hans’ participation in the Staten Island Cricket Club. Wouldn’t one immigrant seek out others, even those from places other than his homeland, in a time when Americans grew increasingly suspicious of foreigners? Netherland is not so much a post-9/11 novel as it is a novel of post-9/11 New York. The critics might not know this, O’Neill does, and he offers a sly wink to city residents: when Hans’ best cricket friend turns up in the Gowanus Canal (we’re not spoiling anything; this happens on page 6 of the book), he notes that this is “reassuring to certain traditionalists.” A floater in the Gowanus is just the sort of thing shell-shocked New Yorkers would find morbidly comforting. O’Neill and his characters might have been born overseas, but they do know their current neighbors well.