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.
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Why did you decide to make the main character Dutch? Does the “Dutchness” of Hans’s character serve as a counterpoint to the chaos going on around him?

I know Dutchmen quite well because I grew up in Holland, and was an honorary Dutchman for many years. The Dutch are terribly straightforward and blunt about things. If they’re thinking something they say it. Hans isn’t quite like that; he’s a little more sensitive and more hesitant than most Dutch would be. He doesn’t have the self-assuredness that I think is quite characteristic of Dutch people. That has partly to do with his own circumstances—the death of his mother, which left him in a state of unprecedented disorientation. And that, of course, has been amplified by the more general sense of disorientation in which New York finds itself. He’s a rational guy, but he’s rational to the point of passivity, so that when the war beckons, he’s almost paralyzed by the question of whether or not it’s a worthwhile cause of action. He’s paralyzed by the simple thought, unassailably logical, that the validity of the war will depend on its outcome. And the outcome of the war is not foreseeable in advance; it’s not predictable. From a logical point of view his reasoning is sound, but from a political point of view, it’s hopeless. His wife takes issue with him for that reason, though this surfaces after she’s left him already.

I think a lot of people here felt a similar passivity about the war, as if they were waiting for someone to tell them how they should think about it. So in a way Hans wasn’t so different from a lot of Americans at the time.

Exactly, he wasn’t. He places his trust in the powers that be. But he confesses, in a way, that he doesn’t really care—which I think is not necessarily typical of most Americans. He’s too depressed and wrapped up in a private circuit of misery. To the degree that he does reflect America’s reaction, he’s not equipped to think politically about the world. It’s very sad to say that, after having lived ten years in America, it increasingly dawns on you how politically undereducated people in this country are. It’s a very dangerous thing, especially in combination with the power that the government has. I say this even though I’ve become anti-anti-American—one does when one starts to live here. I’ve become American; I just got naturalized a few months ago. I really do feel that Hans’s political limitations are reflective of limitations in American culture generally.

What about the character of Chuck Ramkissoon? Is he politically minded?

Not really. He seems to think that everything can go on as before. He’s able to take an opportunistic interest at the beginning of the book in the situation of non-whites in America, as a way to get people behind him and his commercial scheme to build a cricket stadium. But that’s the last political thing he ever does, except at the end where it becomes gradually clear that his scheme to build a cricket stadium is a classic American scheme, a classic affirmation of an old American narrative. I think by the end of the book that narrative is shown to be false.

The plot of this book is very similar to The Great Gatsby—you have this charismatic gangster figure and this phlegmatic narrator—but it’s not a reiteration of that story. The Gatsby-esque narrative of the corrupting of the American dream is premised on the existence of an autonomous, intact America. But there are forces—including 9/11 and the globalization of the economy—which have destroyed that premise and put an end to a hugely significant literary and cultural era in American life. I think the challenge for writers is to explore that and recognize it. When Gatsby was written, the United States was a zone of exclusive opportunity and privileged possibilities. And that just isn’t the case anymore, and hasn’t been for the last ten years. As a character says at the end, Ramkissoon wanted to Americanize cricket and build the market from there. But that’s a waste of time. You just put the stadium in America, and that’s it. You don’t need to build the American market; the market is elsewhere.  These days, America is just a geographic spot like any other for the global economy. I think you’re beginning to see this issue raise its head in American discourse now—essentially, the issue of post-nationalism. Oddly enough, you’re quite well placed if you’re an exotic American like me.

So you’re writing this on the cusp of when this change is happening. Do you have thoughts on how this book—a book about the decade after the turn of the millennium—will be read 10, 25 years from now?

Who knows? I’d be delighted if this book were still being read a few decades from now. I think the books that continue to attract fresh generations of readers are those that are most faithful to their own time. When I read James Joyce, I’m not really interested in the Dublin of 1904.  I’m interested in being in the presence of a voice and a sensibility underpinned by an authenticity which, I think, if you’re a good writer, you can extract from the specific details of your own time. I think most writers do hope that their books will be read in ten years. They’re all secretly hoping that they’ll occupy vast chunks of anthologies in the year 2100.

When you started thinking about this book, who was your initial character? Was it Chuck Ramkissoon? He’s such a flamboyant character that it’s easy to imagine him being the spark for the book.

My initial thought was to write a novel about business, figuring that there are only a few such books around, and business is quite important. Then I met a guy, quite by accident, who gave me an idea. Summer for me is synonymous with playing cricket, and when I came to New York I looked at the White Pages and saw a listing for something called the World Cricket League. When I called, the person who answered said, “This is the president of the World Cricket League.” He turned out to be a Pakistani entrepreneur who was intent on building a cricket stadium in New York City. He’s a very interesting guy, but he bears no resemblance at all to Chuck Ramkissoon, who’s a Trinidadian.

So Chuck was the character who came to you first. Were you originally thinking it would be about him, and then you realized you needed a foil?

Yes, I thought it would be about him, and I realized I’d need someone to tell his story. In coming up with all this, I thought, Well, at last I can make use of this rather inconvenient upbringing I had in Holland. Inconvenient in the sense that most writers are able to authoritatively label themselves as from somewhere, and to lay claim to readers and traditions as a result of that. I went to an international school in Holland, and I didn’t have any memories of growing up in the United States or England or any of these places which other novelists are able to write about in relation to their childhoods. And I thought, Wait a second, I can draw on my memories of Holland to create this international narrator—or this post-national narrator, as I’ve come to think of him.

The draft in which Chuck was more prominent was much more plotted, and that didn’t really work. So I went back to it and made it as uneventful as possible and sank myself into this world of the narrator and his voice. I stopped wondering what the novel was about and just concentrated as much as possible and to the best of my ability on the kind of intimacy that I look for in a novel, and which I think is very rare. It’s essentially a linguistic intimacy. Out of that came what you might call the true preoccupations of the book, beyond superstructure and plot.

I noticed in the bio of an Atlantic piece of yours from 2005 that your novel was then going to be titled “The Brooklyn Dream Game.” But Netherland is such a clever title, with its multiple meanings of Hans living in a netherland of his own design, and the fact that he’s a Netherlander in a city settled by Netherlanders. I was surprised that wasn’t the book’s title all along. When did you switch?

I’m thrilled you should say that—that it has a retrospective inevitability. But I can tell you there was nothing inevitable about it. I thought I had this amazing title, “The Brooklyn Dream Game,” and when I was finishing the book, a friend of mine, Paul Muldoon, the poet, said, “Oh, ‘The Brooklyn Dream Game.’ That’s a good title. You don’t have any others in mind, do you?”  That’s his way of being very polite. I turned to my wife and said, “Do you think I should come up with an alternative to ‘The Brooklyn Dream Game’?” And she said, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s a very good title.” And I said to her, “I’ve walked around for years with this title, and now you tell me it’s not very good?” It’s like walking around for years with a bogey sticking out of your nose, and you expect your friends to say something. But then my wife suggested the title “Netherland.” And you’re right, if I may say so, it does work on innumerable levels. To have a Dutch narrator in the context of an American novel is almost to have the original American narrator, because of course the Dutch were the first people here in New York. And there is reference made, from time to time in the book, to New Netherland, which is old New York. So Hans is the most recent iteration of the original American presence in this part of the world.

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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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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