Thursday, January 14, 2010

Twenty-first Century Odyssey


by Joseph O'Neill

"I'm sure I told you about him. A cricket guy I used to know. A guy from Brooklyn."
- - Netherland, p. 6.

While I have traveled some over the course of my adult life I have never traveled to London; but my image of London was always that of a modern cosmopolitan metropolis. Thus it was with some surprise that I read of the "parochialism" of London as I began the last third of Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland. The protagonist, a Dutchman named Hans van den Broek, has just returned from several years in New York City and is not pleased with the treatment he receives from the Londoners he meets. This is just one of several instances of what I would describe as hubris exhibited by Hans as he preens with a reflexive post-modern attitude that I did not find very appealing. While he is in London he finds out about his wife's affair with their "friend" Martin from his son. His wife merely nods to him and he is off into the night. This was not a surprise as I had been expecting them to separate since before page fifty, in fact it seemed like they had already done so, or at least behaved as if they ought to and they also seem to be able to get back together as well: all Hans' relationships seem to be both fleeting and in flux throughout his life.

Hans' journey (memories of Thomas Mann) is an odyssey through the multicultural neighborhoods of New York City, spiked with bouts of Cricket fever inspired by his Trinidadian friend, Chuck Ramkisoon. Chuck is a man of many trades including driving instructor, but he is primarily a promoter of Chuck! When Hans leaves him for London that is a let down of sorts, but the novel maintains some interest, if nothing else for its' quirkiness and its ability to surprise - although Chuck's demise is not a surprise since the author (is this hubris as well?) introduces Chuck as a character through the report of his death. Have you ever found out you were a partner in an enterprise only after your supposed partner had "parted" this world? If you like a well-written off-beat novel with only minor flaws (some may not even notice them) then this may be a novel you should consider - you may find, as I did, that Hans' friend Chuck was the most interesting character of all.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. Vintage Books, New York. 2009 (2008)

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