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.

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.

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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