Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Netherland ~ by Joseph O'Neill, 2008

In an interview with President Barack Obama, Jon Meacham (Newsweek, May 16, 2009) asked: "What are you reading?"
I'm reading this book called Netherland by Joseph O'Neill ... It's about after 9/11, a guy — his family leaves him and he takes up cricket in New York. And it's fascinating. It's a wonderful book, although I know nothing about cricket.
When I read that, I knew two things: lots of people are going to run out and get that book, and I want to read it myself. When I put it on hold at my library, I was the third in line after the person now reading it. (Aha, I was correct about my first assumption.) Buying the book or borrowing it from a friend is faster. My review:

Title, author, copyright date, and genre?
Netherland ~ by Joseph O'Neill, 2008, fiction

Summarize the book without giving away the ending.
It's a book about cricket, on one level, but don't let that stop you from reading the book. I know nothing about the sport, other than what I read in this book, and it didn't matter at all. Halfway through the book -- maybe 3/4 of the way through the book -- I came across the name DAISY standing alone on the page and thought of another Daisy in literature: the Daisy in The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. That's when I realized reading this book was a lot like reading Gatsby, and I don't particularly like The Great Gatsby. It was funny to run across an interview with the author that's on where he is asked about the Gatsby connection. Here's what he replies:
Halfway through the book I realized with a slightly sinking feeling that the plot of Netherland was eerily reminiscent of the Gatsby plot: dreamer drowns, bystander remembers. But there are only about 5 plots in existence, so I didn't let it bother me too much. Fitzgerald thankfully steered clear of cricket.
Yep, this book and The Great Gatsby are a lot alike and I was bored enough (believe it or not) that I fell asleep last night with 1-1/2 pages to go before finishing Netherland. When I woke, I didn't bother to finish reading the book before turning out the light -- so I read that last little dab of it this morning. Um, back to the summary:

Hans is from the Netherlands and is in the United States after having lived (and married) in England. He moves to New York City because his wife Rachel accepts a great job, and he has to look for work. They have a son, Jake, born in NYC. When 9/11 disrupts their lives, they move into the Chelsea Hotel -- an interesting place with an assortment of people living there:
Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I'd kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel.
What did you think of the main character?
If I say Hans was boring, would this review sound repetitious?

Which character could you relate to best?
Rachel has pluck. She has backbone. What she says and does seems like what I might say and do under the same circumstances. Sort of.

Were there any other especially interesting characters?
Hans is fascinated by Chuck Ramkissoon, an immigrant from Trinidad with grandiose entrepreneurial delusions about cricket in America. Like Rachel, I couldn't figure out what Hans saw in the guy.

From whose point of view is the story told?
Hans, which is probably why it bored me most of the time.

What do you think will be your lasting impression of this book?
As I read the book, I wondered what Barack Obama might have been thinking as he read it. Hans and Chuck each had an outsider's view of the United States, and I wondered if Barack could relate, having been an outsider when he moved to Indonesia. One of the two parts of this book I'll probably long remember is about the bureaucratic nightmare Hans faced at the DMV:
After years of driving rental cars with a disintegrating and legally dubious international license issued in the United Kingdom, I had finally decided to buy and insure a car of my own -- which required me to get an American drivers license. But I couldn't trade my British license (itself derived from a Dutch one) for an American one: such an exchange was for some unexplainable reason only feasible during the first thirty days of an alien's permanent residence in the United States. I would have to get a learner permit and submit to a driving test all over again ...
When Hans arrives at the DMV, a woman exits, sobbing; a man asks if he has his social security card and ID, then says, "I don't want to see it"; and Hans notices a couple of DMV employees:
Two of them, women in their thirties, screamed with laughter by a photocopying machine; but as soon as they reached their positions at the counter they wore faces of sullen hostility. ... So I waited. ... I ... watched a television screen on which "Entertainment News," rather than actual entertainment, was broadcast. ... At last my number came up. ...

"I can't take the credit card. It's got somebody else's name on it."

I looked. My name, which by a miracle of typography was fully spelled out on my social security card, is Johannus Franciscus Hendrikus van den Broek. My credit card, for obvious reasons, identified me merely as Johannus F. H. van den Broek -- exactly as my green card did. ...

ALL FORMS OF IDENTIFICATION MUST SHOW THE SAME NAME. ... "I'm not a handwriting expert," he [the bureaucrat] said.

I looked: on the green card was typed "Johanus." I'd never noticed it before. ...

"Are you Johanus" -- he pronounced the last two syllables as an obscenity -- "or are you Johannus?"

"Come on, let's not play games," I said.

"You think I'm playing a game?" He was actually baring his teeth. ...

"You really want me to go down to the INS and get a new green card? That's what you want to get out of this?"

"I don't want you to go there," the supervisor said. Now he was pointing at my chest. "I'm forcing you to go there."

"What about my written test?" I said, pathetically showing him my twenty out of twenty.

He smiled. "You're going to have to take it again."

And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon. As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square's flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers.
His experience with the DMV is summarized in O'Neill's next sentence, one that shows his power with words:
The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between he road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.
It's easy to relate to Hans, who feels like "fresh slush" after a day with "foul" bureaucrats. (These quotes come from pages 63-68 of the paperback edition.)

Share a passage from the book.
Besides the day at the DMV, I'll also remember what his wife thought about the United States in the months after 9/11 (from pages 95-96):
It came as a reprieve [from the "solitary's vulnerability to insights"] to hear the infuriating cheep of my telephone.

It was Rachel. She told me first about the huge antiwar rally that had taken place in London two days before and how Jake had carried a NOT IN MY NAME placard. Next she told me, in the tone of a person discussing a grocery list, that she had definitely decided not to return to the United States, at least not before the end of the Bush administration or any successor administration similarly intent on a military and economic domination of the world. It was no longer a question of physical security, she said, although that of course remained a factor. It was a question, rather, of not exposing Jake to an upbringing in an "ideologically diseased" country, as she put it, a "mentally ill, sick, unreal" country whose masses and leaders suffered from extraordinary and self-righteous delusions about the United States, the world, and indeed, thanks to the influence of the fanatical evangelical Christian movement, the universe, delusions that had the effect of exempting the United States from the very rules of civilized and lawful and rational behavior it so mercilessly sought to enforce on others. She stated, growing more and more upset, that we were at a crossroads, that a great power had "drifted into wrongdoing," that her conscience permitted no other conclusion.

Ordinarily, I would have said nothing; but it seemed to me that my dealings with my son were at stake. So I said, "Rach, please let's try to keep things in perspective."

"Perspective? And what perspective would that be? The perspective of the free press of America? Is that where you get your perspective, Hans?" She made a harsh sound of mirth. "From TV networks funded by conservative advertisers? From the Wall Street Journal? From the Times, that establishment stooge? Why not Ari Fleischer, while you're at it?"

Not for the first time, I was finding it hard to believe this was the woman I'd married -- a corporate litigator, let's not forget, radicalized only in the service of her client and with not the smallest bone to pick about money and its doings.

"You want Jake to grow up with an American perspective? Is that it? You want him to not be able to point to Britain on a map? You want him to believe that Saddam Hussein sent those planes into the Towers?"

Specks of snow, small and dark as flies, swarmed before me. I said, "Of course he wouldn't grow up in ignorance. We wouldn't allow it."

She said, "Bush wants to attack Iraq as part of a right-wing plan to destroy international law and order as we know it and replace it with the global rule of American force. Tell me which part of that sentence is wrong, and why."

As usual, she was too quick for me.
I kind of think Obama may have noticed this section, too. Whadda ya think? This is exactly the kind of thing my friend in the Netherlands seemed to think about America when we talked about it a few years ago. I think the writing is spot on, in this case, showing what our erstwhile friends in Europe (and other places) thought about us during the Bush administration.

How would you rate this book?
I rate the book an 8 out of 10 because of the writing, even though I find the main character himself rather timid and uninteresting.