Netherland: A Novel by Joseph O’Neill (read in 2015)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
As with Despair by Nabakov, this is kind of a story of a sad man with delusions of grandeur. Because this is a modern novel, though, in Hans van den Broek’s case, he is an immensely successful financial analyst living in London with his wife and son. They haven’t a worry in the world as far as prosaic concerns, so we are free to focus on their ennui. Most of the novel is experienced as a series of flashbacks from narrator Hans, as he thinks about his life in New York City and about his relationship with the dynamic and mysterious Chuck Ramkissoon, an avid businessman with 1000 irons in the fire as well as the founder of the Staten Island cricket club.
Chuck and the Cricket Club were the only thing that kept Hans going after 9/11 triggered a separation from his wife, who moved back to England with their son. We follow Hans through his memories as he tries to figure out who Chuck was and why his body was discovered handcuffed in the Gowanus river. As to this, we receive no satisfaction, but Hans does end up getting back together with his wife. There is little joy in this because they are both vaguely dissatisfied upper–middle-class people with seemingly a stunted penchant for joy.
“[…] the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.”
“Also, the sheer variety of foodstuffs bothered him. “One night it’s Cantonese, then it’s Georgian, then it’s Indonesian, then Syrian. I mean, I think this shit is good baklava, but what the fuck do I know, really? How can I be sure?” Yet when he wrote, Vinay exuded bright certainty and expertise. As I repeatedly went forth with him and began to understand the ignorance and contradictions and language difficulties with which he contended, and the doubtful sources of his information and the seemingly bottomless history and darkness out of which the dishes of New York emerge, the deeper grew my suspicion that his work finally consisted of minting or perpetuating and in any event circulating misconceptions about his subject and in this way adding to the endless perplexity of the world.”
His readers take him at his word. he isn’t lying. just wrong. When you see how he operates you know that in him trust is misplaced. It’s like the difference in trust you have for software you wrote yourself and software you bought.
“Chuck valued craftiness and indirection. He found the ordinary run of dealings between people boring and insufficiently advantageous to him at the deep level of strategy at which he liked to operate. He believed in owning the impetus of a situation, in keeping the other guy off balance, in proceeding by way of sidesteps.”
“was torn between a ridiculous loathing of this obdurate wintry ectoplasm and an equally ridiculous tenderness stimulated by a solid’s battle against the forces of liquefaction.”
I’m not really of huge fan of overt thesaurus writing, especially when it’s this obvious. It’s a fine line, though, I know.
“was torn between a ridiculous loathing of this obdurate wintry ectoplasm and an equally ridiculous tenderness stimulated by a solid’s battle against the forces of liquefaction. Random mental commotions of this kind constantly agitated me during this period,”
“Each of her soothing utterances battered me more grievously than the last—as if I were traveling in a perverse ambulance whose function was to collect a healthy man and steadily damage him in readiness for the hospital at which a final and terrible injury would be inflicted.”
“could see what had happened. I had knocked him off his pedestal. I had called into question his exercise of the New Yorker’s ultimate privilege: of holding yourself out in a way that, back home, would be taken as a misrepresentation.”
Chuck kind of reminds me of some guys I’ve met, who brag about everything under the sun, but who actually have some facts to back up the bragging.
“The exploit struck me, chewing mutton under the sun, as possessing a tantalizing metaphysical significance; and it isn’t an overstatement, I believe, to say that this train of thought, though of course inconclusive and soon reduced to nothing more than nostalgia for the adventure books of my childhood,”
“She half apologized one evening. “I’m sorry. I just find it oppressive being an economy. The nanny”—we’d hired an English-speaking Assamese woman to babysit for Jake for a few hours every morning—“the drivers, the waiters, the deck chair boys, all these people selling stuff on the beach…I mean, every stupid spending decision we make has a huge impact on their lives.””
“Oh yeah? I wanted to say. Get back to me when you’re grossing ten thousand dollars per working day, asshole.”
A gauche reminder that our hero has essentially zero problems compared to most.
“Ronald McDonald drew back. Then he again came forward enormously, head first, turning in the draft so that his rigid beckoning arm swung round in a slow haymaker that scattered a mesmerized shoal of bystanders and ultimately connected with a fellow trying to film the debacle with a cell phone. That man fell to the ground, as did the police officer next to him who was trying to apprehend the fantastic yolk-yellow mitt with his bare hands, this last fall provoking a ducking young officer to draw his gun and point it at the amok Ronald McDonald, which led to a fresh burst of screams and panicky running and mass diving onto the asphalt and Eliza grabbing my arm.”
“[…] examining the shadow in the wine bottle and dispensing one half of the shadow into each of our glasses.”
“I am too tired to explain that I don’t agree—to say that, however much of a disappointment Chuck may have been at the end, there were many earlier moments when this was not the case and that I see no good reason why his best self-manifestations should not be the basis of one’s final judgment. We all disappoint, eventually.”