Queen's University Belfast
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
London: Fourth Estate, 2008
247 pp. £14.99 (Hardback)
I first caught sight of this intriguing book while observing a family of four in the international departures lounge of “Washington National” on a hot summer day in June 2008. A woman in her late thirties was engrossed in Netherland, while her two teen-aged boys larked about with bags of expensive tennis gear and her husband stared blankly at his toyish I-Phone. I awaited a connection through Newark to Belfast, after a consultancy in “research methods” at the Folger Institute, but was thinking about my two young boys and their disaffected mother back home in Ireland. I had been raised within a large, “extended,” immigrant Irish family in the States, yet had encountered for the first time in my life the inner machinations and hidden torments of small, “nuclear”, bourgeois family life in the green tracts of upwardly mobile South Belfast. Netherland is composed not only by an Irish author who has lived and worked in Ireland and the United States but comprises a brilliant study of the stories and lives of small families and hidden, often deleterious, deep narratives beyond the boundaries and in the nether regions, the dark labyrinthine caves, of psychic motivations. As Joseph O’Neill’s main character and retrospective narrator Hans van den Broek asserts early on: “It is truly a terrible thing when questions of love and family and home are no longer answerable” (p. 21).
Netherland involves a first-person narrative that could well be called “The Adversity of Hans van den Broek,” as O’Neill’s self-deprecating narrator ventures to call his own story once he declares he has hit “rock bottom” (p. 212). It is an agonisingly personal story that takes in retrospectively the narrator’s young life in The Netherlands, his early career and marriage in England, and the drift and desolation of his life and marriage in post-9/11 New York City. This fascinating narrative does not involve anything overtly Irish or anything directly rooted in Ireland. However, this third novel by an Irish barrister at work in the US rightfully shouldered its way onto bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic in 2008 and 2009. It brilliantly narrates the murky underworld that opens up when middle-class lives turn brutally bankrupt.
Hans van den Broek’s “adversity” is never explained or, more importantly, explained away, psychologised or ethnicised in some definitive fashion. Layers of familial crises, silences and betrayals emerge from the depths of what appears to be the ideal secondment of a Dutch equities analyst to the “boomtown” of turn-of-the-millenium Manhattan. However, Hans’ superficially ideal life conceals faultlines fully contemporaneous with the post-9/11 world of George W Bush, William Cheney, Tony Blair and the assault on Iraq in March 2003: “we were at a crossroads,” Hans’ wife Rachel contends “that a great power had ‘drifted into wrongdoing’” (p. 92). As a high-flying oil stocks and futures analyst, Hans finds himself “a political-ethical idiot” in the midst of ethical, political and marital adversities which he seems little able to comprehend, much less command. He turns inward, harbouring for two years (October 2001 to November 2003) on the ninth floor of the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, just north of the Twin World Trade Towers netherworld. The Chelsea, by the way, is the rather bohemian hotel in which Joseph O’Neill, his wife Sally Singer and their three boys have resided since 1998 because neither parent had a reliable enough credit history to secure a mortgage in the USA when they first arrived.1 O’Neill’s van den Broek, wife Rachel and infant son are refugees in the Chelsea, trapped in their elegant loft apartment by the wreckage and chaos of lower Manhattan in the weeks and months following 11 September 2001 (see pp. 17-29, in particular). “The unfathomable and catastrophic atmosphere” of “a city gone mad” (pp. 18, 20) eats into their dreams, their domestic lives and the future hopes of their marriage. Rachel gives up and turns silently inward (p. 38), while Hans continues to work “for M_____, a merchant bank with an enormous brokerage operation” (p. 23), not unlike Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, or the infamous Lehmann Brothers, all merchant banks with heavily-leveraged brokerage operations that brought the world to the brink of a fathomless financial abyss in mid-September 2008. Rachel and her son retreat to her parents’ home in London; and she indulges in a wasteful, pointless and futureless affair with a self-involved and manipulative restaurateur. Hans works, plays cricket and strikes up an unusual relationship with an eloquent West Indian gambler, the Trinidadian faux-entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon.
Chuck’s slowly unfolding series of stranger and stranger stories leads Hans deep into the dark underworld of New York’s past and present nightmares. On the surface Chuck wants to recover the neglected history and sporting possibilities of cricket in New York City; he lectures immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean on race, cricket and fair play (see especially, pp. 4-16) and tries to secure financing for “The New York Cricket Club,” “Floyd Bennett Field,” “Corrigan Field,” or “Bald Eagle Field” – a project as slippery as its insecure and shifting names demonstrate (pp. 76-9). Hans registers Chuck’s “vision” as one of “waste and ice” (p. 79), yet cricket is a crucial point of reference for the two opportunistic friends. Chuck articulates the rhetoric and ethos of cricket as “fair play”, integrative, “a lesson in civility” and as deeply American as any subsequent sport that now appears as typically American (baseball, basketball, etc.), yet Chuck also makes much of the notion of “not cricket” (pp. 12-3). And the latter notion is the key to the book’s darkest vision: lurking in the netherlands of our rhetorics and visions of the future we encounter the impulses, obstacles, compromises and betrayals that turn us from our best selves and talk of fair play toward that which is “not cricket”, including infidelities, lies, vileness and evil.
O’Neill tells a tale that stands as The Great Gatsby for our contemporary era of economic and ethical boom and bust. Chuck Ramkissoon’s vision of the recovered greatness of American cricket is undercut by his own gambling, betrayals and ghastly murder. Hans van den Broeck, O’Neill’s Nick Carraway, tells the progressively unfolding stories of personal aspirations and familial horrors, yet he escapes his opportunistic friend’s sordid death in the end. O’Neill partners Hans’ tale of adversity with final recovery. In a world “far away from Tipperary” (p. 116), Hans finds an unexpected measure of justice beyond the unsettling losses of his life. The end of the book turns away from plumbing the depths of melodramatic horrors toward recognising the small gestures of ordinary lives (p. 247). Perhaps this is the sort of insight and resolution that can only happen in novels, whether Irish or American, but it is moving nevertheless. Hans now knows tragically his own duplicity as well as that of his murdered Trinidadian friend, but he relishes the recognition that “there is to be no drifting out of the moment” of fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, parents and children, who must in the end turn toward one another and embrace and smile again, beyond the netherworld of collapsing towers, fraudulent bankers and self-deluding visionaries.
- See the extraordinary profile of Joseph O’Neill and his career and family in Britt Collins, ‘We live in a hotel,’ The Guardian, Saturday, 16 August 2008, ‘Family’ section, pp. 1-2. [↩]