Saturday, July 25, 2009

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

This novel won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award and a friend recommended it after a discussion of some of its post-modern qualities. Although well-written, I am not entirely convinced it deserves the accolades showered upon it.

First of all, it flips back and forth between first and third person, much like the narrative flips back and forth between present, future, and past. This book most definitely will require another read, so I can track these changes and see if some narrative justification exists for these shifts.

O'Neill has written a fine, interesting story of a Dutch financial analyst, Hans, who travels with his wife, Rachel, to New York from London. The reason for these job changes does not come out in the early chapters, but only much further along. Had I had this information, my understanding of the events in the "present" would have made more sense, and the "future" events would have been more logical. Because O'Neill jumped around, following the motivations of these characters became a chore.

Also, the early parts of the book -- the prose seems a bit stiff -- possesses a voice different from later parts, which seem more natural, like this passage, when Hans describes an incident from his childhood in the Netherlands:

"The old visual domain was unchanged: a long series of unlit back gardens leading to the almost indiscernible silhouette of dunes. To the north, which was to my right, the Scheveningen lighthouse twinkled for a second, then fell dark, then suddenly produced its beam, a skittish mile of light that became lost somewhere in the blue and black above the dunes. These sand hills had been my idea of wilderness. Pheasants, rabbits, and small birds of prey lived and died there. On escapades with a friend or two, we would urge our twelve-year-old bodies under the barbed wire lining the footpaths and run through the sand-grass into the wooded depths of the dunes." (86)

I got the impression this represented the height of mischief and rebellion for the young boy. This passage also reminds me of young Stephen Daedalus coping with the vagaries of Clongowes in Poratrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The novel contains long paragraphs that seem ever so slightly organized to prevent the conclusion that Hans is day dreaming or we are experiencing his stream of consciousness, I found myself frequently back-tracking to find out where I was.

Despite these drawbacks, I could not bring myself to abandon the story. I cared about Hans, and took his side in the discussions with Rachel. Fortunately, I have a large book of cricket rules, so I could make sense of some of the many references to the sport. However, some deeper connection between life and cricket must lie buried in all this, but I do not know enough about the sport to figure that out. Four stars

--Chiron, 7/25/09

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