Whether it was one wicked fairy or a flock of them that did it, Joseph O'Neill's third novel, Netherland, came into this world with a terrible curse: a perceived resemblance to the literary classic that, at the current bend in fashion, most winningly accommodates the label, "Best American Novel": The Great Gatsby. Like Fitzgerald's masterpiece, Netherland looks back at a narrator's encounters with an unusual man who turns out to be a professional dreamer and an incidental criminal. Although more than twice the length of Gatsby, Netherland seems no less compact and easily as lyrical; the proportion of exciting incident to rich description is just about the same. An air of disappointed or thwarted promise clouds over both books. Finally, the older book's famous passage about the "fresh green breast of the New World" served commentators as a hinge to the newer book's pervasive reference to New York's Netherlandish ancestry.
It didn't take long for critics to carp that Netherland is not, repeat not, The Great Gatsby, but they complained in vain. Just the other day (this would be in January 2009), I read yet another blog-entry review that raptly held up Netherland in admiring comparison. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the blogger mentioned the two titles in the same sentence. There was no exploration of the points in common. If you liked Gatsy (and who would admit to disliking it?), you'll love Netherland. So often these days, that's what literary criticism comes down to: the Hollywood pitch.
Although it was easy for me to see the shallowness of the comparison, easy to say that Netherland is not in any significant way like Fitzgerald's novel, it was very difficult to say just what Netherland is about. Just as Gatsby is "about" much more than a poor young man's stricken affection for a belle of the ball, but a romance that in many ways is about nothing less than America, so Netherland is more than a reluctant Boswell's account of a peculiarly salty Johnson bowling his way through cricket in Gotham. Gatsby got in the way. The book deserved and got a second reading, with plenty of notes, at a quiet Caribbean resort, where Mr O'Neill's prose was as delightful as the view through the palm trees and over the surf, to islands glimmering on the horizon — islands not so very far from Chuck Ramkissoon's Trinidadian home.
I began with an idea, that, contrary to the common reading, Netherland is not about Chuck Ramkissoon. The most salient difference between Gatsby and Netherland is that Hans van den Broek and Nick Carraway stand in inverse ratios as regards the men who bemuse them. Hans is not at all so self-effacing as Nick. He's not really self-effacing at all; he is, rather, disarmingly modest. While I began to be certain that he, and not Chuck, is the central figure in Netherland, I considered something else that is very peculiar about the novel: its swiftly-shifting temporal planes. With these things in mind — the centrality of of Hans, the author's acrobatic leaps through time — I came across a passage, not far from the end, that affirmatively linked the two.
The passage is written in the novel's most recent plane of time. As at the beginning of the novel, Hans has returned to London from his sojourn in New York City; he has been back for two years. His firm has kitted him out with a young American assistant called Cardozo.
He has a flat in Chelsea and a girlfriend from Worcestershire who has forgiven him his exotic name. He wears pink shirts with pink silk cuff links. He twirls a tightly furled brolly on sunny days. His pinstripes grow bolder and bolder. I wouldn't be amazed to see a signet ring turn up on his pinkie.
I understand something about what's going on with Cardozo, because when I arrived in London in my twenties I too felt like a performing extra. There was something marvelous about the thousands of men in dark suits daily swarming down Lombard Street — I even remember a bowler hat — and something decidedly romantic about the leftover twinkle of empire that went from Threadneedle Street to the Aldwych to Piccadilly and, like tardy starlight, perpetrated a deception of time. At Eaton Place, in drizzle, I half expected to run into Richard Bellamy, MP; and when I say that in Berkeley Square I once listened for a nightingale, I'm not joking.
But nobody here hold on to such notions for very long. The rain soon becomes emblematic. The double-deckers lose their elephants' charm. London is what it is. In spite of a fresh emphasis on architecture and an influx of can-do Polish plumbers, in spite, too, of the Manhattanish importance lately attached to coffee and sushi and farmers' markets, in spite even of the disturbance of 7/7 — a frightening but not a disorienting occurrence, it turns out — Londoners remain in the business of rowing their boats gently down the stream. Unchanged, accordingly, is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling lightheartedness that's aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I've speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood's hill always seemed to life ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point. As to what this point actually was, I can only say that it involved wistfulness. An example: one lunchtime, Cardozo, mulling over popping the question to his Worcestershire girlfriend, points out a beautiful woman in the street. "I'll no longer be able to go up to her and ask her out," he says, sounding dazed. Plainly the logical response is to inquire of Cardozo exactly when was the last time (a) he asked out a girl on the street, and (b) she said yes, and (c) he and she went on to greater things; and in this way bring home to him that he's being a dummy. I say no such thing, however. We are in the realm not of logic but of wistfulness, and I must maintain that wistfulness is a respectable, serious condition. How, otherwise, to account for much of one's life?
Wistfulness, I decided. Netherland is not only a novel about but a treatise on wistfulness. And what is wistfulness but nostalgia faced the other way? Not, in other words, nostalgia at all. It is the longing for things to happen again, now that one is capable of understanding and appreciating them. The wistful man does not want to go back in time. He wants to bring the past forward to the present, and refresh it with his enhanced grasp of how things might be, or might have been, otherwise. Before taking a closer look at the passage above, it would be useful to complete this idea of wistfulness with a passage from the beginning of the book. Hans is remembering the Tribeca loft that he and Rebecca shared, before 9/11.
We had plenty to feel smug about, if so inclined. Smugness, however, requires a certain reflectiveness, which requires perspective, which requires distance; and we, or certainly I, didn't look upon our circumstances from the observatory offered by a disposition to the more spatial emotions — those feelings, of regret or gratitude or relief, say, that make reference to situations removed from one's own. It didn't seem to me, for example, that I had dodged a bullet, perhaps because I had no real idea what a bullet was. I was young. I was not much extracted from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent world conspires to place us as children
Now to return to the much later passage with a view to parsing its time zones. It begins, firmly, in the outermost of the novel's frames, set two years after Hans van den Broek's return from New York (where the body of the novel takes place). During the two London years, a young American has been seconded to Hans's desk. Hans is not only amused by Cardozo's foppish attire but reminded of his own infatuation with City life about ten years earlier (before he was married, and before he went to New York). We're treated to a winking and utterly charming send-up of the narrator as a young man, listening for nightingales in Berkeley Square — a reference, by the way, to a song from the Twenties ("A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square"); to quote a song that appeared when Mr O'Neill was a toddler, the old tune is "a song/That was a hit before your Mother was born." Listening for nightingales is the opposite of nostalgic: it is a yearning for something from the past to happen again.
At the start of the third paragraph that I have quoted, the narrative swings into generality: "nobody holds on to such notions for long." London town is revealed not to be a film set after all, but only the afterburn of empire — a different kind of sham. A well-worn but well-polished chestnut is presented in the form of a comparison between London's stunted promise and New York's endless future — a pointed refutation of Fitzgerald's biggest howler, the one about no second acts in America. In America, there is nothing but second acts. As a New Yorker grasps for the future, his or her preparedness is beside the point, and the point, we're told clearly, is wistfulness. The reader will be forgiven for failing to note that Hans takes no account of the grasper's success; having one's selfhood always in the future is what makes success (or failure) irrelevant. What matters is yearning for the possibilities that one has guessed from the past. For an American like Cardozo, in other words, behaving like a performing extra is the very stuff of life: life is a rehearsal of possibilities. The end is never reached, the course never run: it is Zeno's paradox without the paradox.
The key to the entire passage is this: "I too felt like a performing extra." Then, but no longer. The performing extra trades in the what's-next? sensation of everyday existence, however momentarily, for a role, defined, however vaguely, in advance: the performing extra enacts a show that has been written and conceived by one's memory. The past is the future. The feeling of knowing what is going to happen next — that one is going to turn into Old Jewry and bump into Augustus Melmotte — is exhilarating, especially to young men for whom the future stretches out in blank continental slabs. Netherland is the story of a young man's transformation from "performing extra" to the fully committed actor in the one-man show that is every mature life. At the start, life's possibilities are, like a jeweler's tray of diamond engagement rings, an array of tempting choices. At the end, possibility is altogether more dire, encompassing death, the end of love, and the dangerous world that confronts one's children. It is nowhere near as pretty but it is altogether actual. The happy man is not so much free of regret for the possibilities that he rejected as enriched an the understanding that has settled around the possibility that he chose. Mr O'Neill's ability to demonstrate of the metamorphosis of a young man's possibilities into an older man's possibility within the space a mere 250 pages signals the realization of a great literary gift. (January 2009; amended August 2009)
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