There’s A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that torments me. “Turn of the Road” is about a man who has connected with the world only through careful watching. “Creatures trusted him, wandering / Into his open gaze . . . And the caged lions / Stared as if at ungraspable freedom.” The man waits in “alien space” watching the world from a hotel room until his heart realizes it has no love and cuts him off, refusing him further communion with anything.
“Netherland” has the same problem as the watcher in the hotel. It’s an incredible novel that doesn’t work. Author and critic Joseph O’Neill can’t write a bad sentence and is incapable of thought that isn’t elegant, eloquent and wise. But a perceptive eye isn’t enough -- some sort of viscera are necessary, and though O’Neill tells us certain things are important, he never really makes us feel it. Even a story about detachment needs attachment to work.
Hans van den Broek, a Dutch national and equities analyst specializing in oil, lives in a nice flat in TriBeCa and watches his marriage fall apart after 9/11. His English wife doesn’t want to expose their young son to an “ideologically diseased” country, so she moves back to England and consoles herself there with an affair and a rhetorical stance. Van den Broek sequesters himself in the Chelsea Hotel, befriending a Turkish man who walks around wearing angels wings and returning to his childhood pastime: cricket.
Enter Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket umpire and self-made entrepreneur. Early in the book, Ramkissoon makes a cricket decision in Van den Broek’s favor, and the Dutchman hears an eerie grumble of racism among the mostly dark-skinned players on his team. “It’s always the same with these people,” says a Pakistani batsman. Suddenly, someone pulls a gun. Ramkissoon disarms the man with words, then gives a rousing speech about America’s attitude toward baseball’s older cousin: “You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer.”
(It’s true. One of the cricket grounds mentioned is near my house -- it’s not classy. It’s an ill-kept place that police case for illegal activity. New York’s softball and baseball diamonds are beautifully kept, but the cricket grounds I’ve seen are horrid.) Ramkissoon has an odd wisdom and a host of slightly shady financial shenanigans, while Van den Broek comes at the world with the exquisitely observed detachment of an Oxbridge boy. Ramkissoon “valued craftiness and indirection. He found the ordinary run of dealings between people boring,” observes Van den Broek as the Trinidadian takes him on his business rounds. The book presents itself as a sort of growing-up story for adults, maybe “A Separate Peace” for people who’ve mastered the world without understanding it. But that book’s vital connection with reality never arrives here.
Van den Broek’s problem and the problem many of O’Neill’s readers will have are the same: Cushioned by resources, a reasonable job, a reasonable spouse and a reasonable existence, it’s hard to have a sense of life, passion or that thing the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called duende -- no matter how much yoga you do. Friends pass in and out of Van den Broek’s life, mostly through the doors of nice restaurants; none are particularly real to him. “Things blow up and blow away,” he tells a friend and colleague who’s been fired from his job analyzing midcap stocks. Despite the shadow of the gone twin towers, what Van den Broek means is that, once the dust settles, people like them pick up and move on. The Ramkissoons of the world don’t. Sure enough, Ramkissoon ends up dead in the Gowanus Canal.
Ideally, a person would want Ramkissoon’s vitality and Van den Broek’s stable bank account. But it doesn’t work like that. The lively one can’t stay alive and the stable one’s dead inside. It’s not a black-white racial divide. It is a bit of a rich-poor divide, but it’s more a divide between someone from good background who’s lived life as he should and someone from no background who never had a “should” to follow.
O’Neill’s writing is unendlingly beautiful. If it were enough to go from startling observation to startling observation, this would be a masterpiece. It’s not. There are dime-store novels and half-baked MFA theses written with one-twentieth the skill that work better because something gets loved and something gets lost. No matter how sharp your perceptive knives, without warmth, no blood will flow. The Van den Broeks have sex without kissing each other. It’s like a metaphor for failing to find communion with anything worthwhile, and then simply giving up. O’Neill gives us the loss without the love; the reason to read this book is that, for affluent Westerners, it’s a scary little mirror.
Laurel Maury is a New York-based writer and critic.