I wasn’t very far into Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland before I decided this was one of those landmark books. And so soon after reading the spectacular American Rust? Lucky, lucky me. I wasn’t too much farther into it before I began to change my mind.
Examples of what got me going at first: The narrator’s account of his first romance with his wife.
We courted in the style preferred by the English [She’s English, he Dutch, though most of the story is set in NYC.]: alcoholically.
Then his account of his wife’s reason’s for leaving him.
She stated that she now questioned everything, including, as she put it, the narrative or our marriage.
I said sharply, “The narrative?”
“The whole story,” she said. The story of her and me, for better and for worse…the story of our union to the exclusion of all others–the story. It just wasn’t right anymore. It had somehow been falsified. When she thought ahead and imagined the years and years…”
The book is full of fine and insightful writing like that. I did note a sort of flat affect to the story. Great events had the same tone about them as minor ones, but that didn’t bother me much for a while because I assumed we were building to something. Sadly, we never did.
Near the beginning of the story, narrator Hans (now in London) receives a phone call from a reporter telling him that a friend is dead–found in a canal with his hands tied behind him. The reporter, fishing for details, is looking for an association between Hans and the man and the man’s death. As to the death, no connection. As to Hans and the man, plenty.
Chuck is a colorful, big-talking, Trinidadian who sucks Hans into his inner circle through their mutual interest in cricket. (There’s more talk about cricket in this book than any other I’ve ever read, and it’s a wonder O”Neill kept my interest at all because I find the game absolutely incomprehensible. I recall sitting for a half hour watching a match on TV in London and garnering not one hint of what the players were doing or why.) Chuck is an umpire, Hans a weekend warrior. The teams are made up primarily of colored folks from the late British empire–West Indies, India, Sri Lanka–so Hans sticks out a bit as a pale Hollander.
Eventually, it becomes plain that Chuck is a bit of a financial player with a lot of projects in the fire, that he’s adept at pulling people into his sphere and making them useful to him in various ways, even without their knowledge. Which is what happens to Hans, and to Chuck’s great scheme to build a cricket stadium in America that will eventually host the world cup. Nothing overtly crooked takes place, though there is one incident that suggests some strongarming is going on, and which disturbs Hans greatly.
During all this, Hans’ wife returns to London with their son. He visits every other weekend. (They have plenty of money.) He eventually breaks it off with NYC and his multicultural crowd and returns to England himself. Then the phone call.
So what’s so bad about all this? Remember that flat tone I talked about? It’s Hans’ normal way of talking. When Chuck talks, the book is in color. When Hans talks, it’s in black and white. Plus, most every important incident happens offstage. We hear about it later, from someone else. Very little happens before our eyes. That and the monotonous tone bother me. I’m sure it’s a super book for those who prefer the character- or voice-driven novel. Me, I want some more juice.
And, oh, about the title. Excellent job with that double-entendre. Hans is from The Netherlands, the lowlands. His friend is involved in the underworld. Their relationship is suggestive of both places, but neither understands the other, in the end. There’s also the suggestion that the narrator has been through a kind of hell. If so, it’s a rather tepid kind of hell, and it typifies the general impression of the book. I’m reminded of a story I tell probably too often, about some wag’s comment concerning the stories that appeared in the New Yorker under the leadership of Wallace Shawn. Nothing (almost) happens. Not quite that bad, but close enough.