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Customer Review

19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful but understated, rather like 5-day cricket, 29 Jun. 2008
This review is from: Netherland (Hardcover)
Hans van den Broek is a pleasant chap: observant, often witty, cricket-loving, and kind to the strangest of strangers. This characterization of the narrator, along with some beautiful and perceptive prose, is what gives Netherland its special appeal, for this is a retrospective novel of sparse drama and little suspense. Another attraction is the unusual milieu: the New York cricket scene, and its largely South Asian and West Indian membership. A second milieu, the famously offbeat Chelsea Hotel, is a tad predictable as an urban microcosm (as is the amiable eccentricity of its inhabitants) but O'Neill refreshes the device with gentle humor. Passages set in Holland and London add further cosmopolitanism, quite fitting to this story of global migrants.

Chuck Ramkissoon, Hans's driven and ethically suspect friend, is a Trinidadian Gatsby for our times, a self-centered dreamer with a shady fortune who still inspires affection and loyalty. And there's much of Nick Carraway about Hans: a level-headed outsider both drawn to and wary of his exotic friend, a capable man who makes a decent living in the city but opts to follow his heart and leave. Where Netherland differs most from Gatsby is in its embrace of New York. This is a "post-9/11 novel," or so Michiko Kakutani described it in the New York Times. While there's some discussion of the malaise that followed the attacks - the strain threatens to scupper Hans' marriage to Rachel (a smart but shrill Brit) - O'Neill is more interested in celebrating New York's endless power to create possibility for new generations of immigrants. NYC is a vortex of enthusiasm, and though Hans is rather unhappy there, he warms to its energizing, regenerating effect on others.

Without overdoing it, O'Neill peppers his tale with arresting imagery. The Staten Island cricket field where Hans plays is surrounded by houses with elaborate gardens. "For as long as anyone can remember, the local residents have tolerated the occasional crash of a cricket ball, arriving like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry, into their flowering shrubbery." O'Neill does a fine job of explaining cricket to the American majority without boring the initiated.

The story has a meandering structure, switching back and forth in time, a fractured chronology that encourages connections and contrasts. But it's overdone. It's self-consciously literary. The main effect is to de-emphasize drama and keep the focus on observation, yet O'Neill could have struck a better balance between action and thought. We have the makings of a much more emotionally compelling story - What will happen to Chuck and his dream of a first-class Brooklyn cricket ground? What will happen to Hans and Rachel's marriage? - but these outcomes are revealed within the first two pages. Rather like a five-day game of cricket between teams unafraid of a draw, the novel is an exercise in understatement, eliciting only moderate emotional investment, mildly pleasurable with occasional flashes of brilliance.

Since U.S. critics (NYT, New Yorker) consider Netherland exemplary, it seems to me that Tom Wolfe's complaint of 20 years ago is still valid: much modern fiction remains too concerned with literary effect and intellectual contemplation and too little interested in enthralling stories. I'm not arguing for gratuitous pushing of readers' buttons, or for catharsis, but for the kind of alternately unsettling and inspiring storytelling that Wolfe advocated when he called for a return to the spirit of Dickens. The "post-9/11 novel" surely deserves as much.
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Initial post: 18 Sep 2008 11:54:16 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Sep 2008 11:54:30 BDT
I agree, except I don't think so much of Wolfe. For me great contemporary novels are things like Coetzee's Disgrace and Roth's The Human Stain, where provocativeness and intellectual depth are encapsulated in a short, punchy, gripping story -- and the story is the point of the book, not a tack-on to the author's thesis.
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