Interviews May 2008

The Great Irish-Dutch-American Novel

Joseph O'Neill, an Irishman raised in Holland, talks about The Great Gatsby, post-9/11 New York, and his new novel, Netherland.
book cover

Netherland
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Joseph O'Neill
Pantheon
272 pages

On the face of it, the story of an expatriate Dutchman obsessed with playing cricket might not seem to have the makings of a quintessentially American novel. But at its heart, Joseph O’Neill’s new book, Netherland, is about rehabilitating one’s life and chasing the American dream, albeit at a time when that dream has lost a bit of its gloss. The novel’s narrator, oil-futures analyst Hans van den Broek, finds himself marooned in post-9/11 New York City after the death of his mother, the disintegration of his marriage, and the departure of his wife and young son for England. Weekdays, he throws himself into his high-intensity work. But on weekends he spends much of his time lying on the floor of his apartment, pondering how his life has gone so wrong. The sole bright spot comes on Saturdays, when he travels to a far corner of the city to play cricket, a game that reminds him of happier days as a youth in Holland. Refereeing one of the games is a man named Chuck Ramkissoon, a shady but charming Trinidadian businessman whose dream is to build a major international cricket stadium on an abandoned lot in Brooklyn (his motto is “think fantastic”), but who in the meantime brings in money by selling Kosher products to sushi restaurants and running a city-wide gambling ring. Chuck sees the stadium not just as his chance to make his fortune, but also as a place where Americans will rub elbows with Indians, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, and others—and in the process gain some much-needed international perspective. As Chuck tells Hans,

Americans cannot really see the world. They think they can, but they can’t. I don’t need to tell you that. Look at the problems we’re having. It’s a mess, and it’s going to get worse. I say, [Americans] want to have something in common with Hindus and Muslims? Chuck Ramkissoon is going to make it happen.

The two form an unlikely friendship.  Together they tend the grass on Chuck’s nascent cricket field and cruise about the city, with Hans practicing his driving and Chuck collecting bets. To Hans, Chuck’s innate optimism and force of purpose represent a lifeline; if he can just grab onto it, he might be able to pull himself out of his stupor. Yet he also intuits that he might be wise to keep his distance, for Chuck is so intent on his glittering dream that he will do almost anything to make it come true.

O’Neill, who is Irish by way of a long stint in Holland, has lived in New York for the past ten years, and is a dedicated cricket player in his adopted city. Much of the novel’s vivid and extensive detail – including such particulars as the dimensions of a cricket field and the flora and fauna of Trinidad’s forests—is drawn from O’Neill’s own life. (The author learned about Trinidad in the course of his former career as a barrister defending Trinidadians on death row in England.) Yet the details, which give the novel a rich texture, are secondary to Hans’s ruminations. At its heart, Netherland is an interior novel, in which the reader is privy to Hans’s thoughts as he slowly figures out a way to rebuild his life. 

O’Neill is a regular contributor to The Atlantic and has written two previous novels, This Is the Life and The Breezes.  His family history, Blood-Dark-Track, was a New York Times Notable Book.

I spoke with him by phone on March 24.

—Katie Bacon



Joseph Oneill
Joseph O'Neill
(photo by Lisa Ackerman)

Quite a few novels cover the same territory as Netherland: New York City during and after 9/11.  Did that make you hesitate at all before choosing this setting for your own novel?

I already had the beginnings of the story, and then 9/11 happened. It inserted itself into the novel, and in many ways became the book’s subject matter. It felt almost compulsory to write about it. And when I was writing, there was very little written about 9/11.  I think it took most people two or three years to see their way through the smoke and the dust to the point that it became something they could write about.

Was I deterred by other writing on the subject? Not really, I have to say. I think Don Delillo quickly knocked something out, which I didn’t read. One or two other people may have knocked things out. I also sort of feel I’ve reached the stage in my life and career where I can take possession of a current event without looking over my shoulder. It’s not as if the landscape is chock-a-block with terrific writers at the moment, I don’t think.

Earlier in your career, would you have felt uncomfortable writing about current events? Is it something that takes a certain amount of confidence as a writer?

It takes a long, long time to write what I do write. My last book was a nonfiction book in which I wrote about my family and its history and the history of the countries and communities that gave rise to my parents. It served as a kind of entry into questions of politics and society and history. This book is my first fictional foray into that world.

I was sort of horrified to calculate the other day that this is my first novel in thirteen years. I wrote my first two novels in my twenties, and they’re essentially comic novels of a certain kind. This book is a much more substantial novel, and it’s also an American novel. It’s my first novel as an American novelist. Now that I’ve lived here for ten years, I feel able to insert myself into the rather welcoming field of American literature.

The book is yoked to details of the early 2000s: 9/11, of course, but also debates over President Bush’s policy in Iraq, and New Yorkers’ experiences during the blackout of 2003. For someone who has lived through this time, reading the book provides a sense of recognition, almost of déjà vu. Is that a feeling you were going for?

My description of Hans’s sense of New York accords to a large degree with my own sense of it. It was a time of fantastic confusion and anxiety that, amazingly, was replaced by confusion and anxiety about what the United States was doing. So there were two phases, and I think the book deals with both those phases. And in a way the second phase, the phase of the Bush Administration’s reaction to 9/11, and the benightedness into which the country was plunged as a result of Bush’s actions, is, I suspect, what really colors this book.

Someone asks Hans at one point whether he was there for 9/11, and he says, “You were only really there if you were in the building.” And I would agree with him on that point. For the rest of us, it was a spectacle, literally. But you become more directly implicated when the country starts going to war, and when the government takes advantage of this catastrophe for its own ends.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic.com, is now a freelance editor and writer living outside of Boston.

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