Netherland By Joseph O'Neill
“I became an expert wallpaperer and as a consequence something of a ponderer: few activities, I discovered, are more conducive to reflection than the unscrolling and measuring of a length of a wallpaper, the cutting of it and the painting of glue on it, and gluing of the cut paper to a wall as to produce a pattern.”
And for the first hundred pages or so of Joseph O’neil’s bestseller Netherland, the idea of watching protagonist Hans van der Broeck putting up wallpaper is just about as enthralling as his recollections of his exile to and eventual induction into fringe New York City life. Yes, as Hans continually expatiates on wallpapering or on the nuances of the sport of cricket, you too can search the nicks and crannies of the attic of your own subconscious.
As you find yourself slipping off the line of Hans narrative, you might face some sort of existential crisis as you try to confer with yourself about yourselves’ inability to enjoy this book.
“Am I just not getting it?” You’ll ask yourself.
“The NY Times book review called it the best book of the year.” You’ll sternly answer back.
“But I’m not really finding anything enigmatic or profound about this guy’s writing. It’s not difficult, its just not moving or enlightening or anything.”
You’ll then chastise yourself; “James Woods of The New Yorker praised Netherland as ‘Exquisitely written,’ with a ‘deep human wisdom.’ Obviously you are just that simple-minded, pseudo intellectual you always feared you were. Enjoy mediocrity.”
“Obama recommended this?” you’ll ask.
“The Obama can do no wrong.”
And if the leisurely reader can only make themselves drudge through the first 50 pages or so (its only 256 total), it may seem rather apparent that Netherland is just another golden goat glorified by those pretentious, over-educated, in-love-with-the-smell-of-their-own-farts, mental masturbators who constantly conflate ennui with profundity, dissonance with high art. With all the hype that O’Neil got from the critics, including a presidential plug, one would think he didn’t need to supply an engaging plot.
And for the book’s first act, he really doesn’t. It’s a character study of Hans; Dutch-born, financial analyst, thirtyish, hobbies include the aforementioned wallpapering, thinking about wallpapering, playing cricket and getting dumped by his wife. Did you yawn during his character profile?
Now the title of the book might be some type of under the cuff nod to Peter Pan’s stomping grounds, but it’s hard to enough to stick it out with Hans for the first centennial to really want to investigate the significance of the allusion. New York is admittedly a strange, avant-garde place, fringe of the fringe, and O’Neil deserts our Dutch expatriate in one of the stranger Big Apple bohemian eccentricities: The Chelsea Hotel (Where Kerouac wrote On The Road, Warhol directed Chelsea girls, and Sid Vicious purportedly stabbed his girlfriend). Hans, his English wife, Rachel, and their son Jake are marooned in the Chelsea Hotel after the 9/11 attacks. Fearing for her sons’ safety and disillusioned with American culture and politics, Rachel hightails it back to Great Britain with Jake. She leaves behind Hans, who she believes is too wrapped up with his work, too emotionally distant, too much into being an inanimate object…
So we are all alone…with Hans. And Hans, you know, well he exists. And we all get a little more in touch with what Sartre called nausea.
But don’t worry, dear readers, there’s a catch to this review.
Hans says it himself:
“A story,‘ I said suddenly. ‘Yes. That’s what I need.’
‘I wasn’t kidding.’
Neither are we, Hansie.
By auspicious luck, Hans actually decides to not be so lame and joins…a cricket team?
So this is where Chuck Ramkissoon comes in and literarily saves the book when he saves Hans during an altercation at a cricket match (guns and cricket? And you thought European soccer was rough!). Thank god for Chuck Ramkissoon, the expatriate from Trinidad; the small time gangster with machinations of constructing a cricket stadium in Brooklyn. Chuck befriends Hans and introduces our soft-spoken Dutchman to the supple underbelly of fringe New York. It may lead a reader to think that the ennui of the first act of the book was purposive. The touristy part of NYC, Times Square, Broadway, Rockefeller Center, is often superficial and boring…like Hans. It’s the outskirts of New York society where the city really gets interesting, and so does the book.
But O’Neil should have either included Chuck earlier in the narrative, or he should have written a longer book. By the time Chuck’s shows up you get so little time to spend with him because O’Neil suddenly wraps everything up. At least by the resolution Hans isn’t such a papier-mâché punching bag, though. Doing his best Clark Gable impression, Hans informs his wife how happy he is that her boyfriend’s f—— someone else. “Good,” replies Han, “That means I can f— you.”
Other complaints: First, O’neil tiptoes far too often on the thin line between profound thought and what can only be termed as a fantastic grasp upon the obvious. Hans observes at a key turning point of the story,
“I think it’s customary, in the kind of narrative to which this segment of my life appears to lend itself, to invoke the proverb of rock bottom—the profundity of woe, the depth of s—, from which the sufferer can go nowhere but to higher, more sweetly scented places.”
Here O’Neil is treading dangerously close between the “wow” and the “duh.”
Second, the story is supposed to be an analysis of the greater consciousness of the New Yorkers after the horrific events of 9/11. But the story never seems to fully engage this consciousness of victimization. It just feels like a story that happened to occur physically and chronologically around the events of 9/11. It’s as if during the entire catastrophic event, Hans was in the bathroom with really big headphones. Hans even admits,
“Let’s not forget that when it all happened I was a rubbernecker in Midtown, watching the same television images I’d have watched in Madagascar.”
Cool fact you learn reading this book: “Yankee” is simply a Dutch nickname for Jan.
You could have just as easily as learned this fact from Wikipedia though, stripping this book of anything other than a “library checkout” nod.