Suspend Your Disbelief

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Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill

Most reviews of Netherland have focused on the relationship between two main male characters, Chuck and Hans, and on the dramatic and emblematic role of cricket in the novel. Yet a quieter but equally resonant storyline--the unraveling of Hans and Rachel's marriage--seems to have been labeled by critics as secondary, or even undeveloped. Perhaps this is because so-called important books don’t deal with issues of domesticity and marriage. Or, if they do, we’re quick to give them another, more important label as well: a book about identity, or politics, or globalization, or exile.

Aftermath: Marriage and Longing in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland has been reviewed to great acclaim: the novel has been hailed as no less than a contemporary Great Gatsby. James Wood, in the New Yorker, writes: “Netherland has opened where The Great Gatsby ends, with its forlorn dreamer dead in the water.” Alan Hollinghurst, in the New York Review of Books, calls the friendship between this said dreamer and the narrator “Gatsbyesque.” And Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times, writes: “If some of these passages reverberate with echoes of The Great Gatsby and its vision of New York . . . the reader can only surmise that they are entirely deliberate, for, like Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, Joseph O’Neill’s stunning new novel, Netherland, provides a resonant meditation on the American Dream.”

The dreamer here is Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian who, among other things, dreams of introducing the sport of cricket to America. Hans, the narrator, befriends Chuck when he begins to play cricket, shortly after Hans’s separation from his wife. Most reviews of Netherland have focused on the relationship between these two men, and on the dramatic and emblematic role of cricket in the novel. And rightly so: this is the major storyline of the book.

Yet a quieter but equally resonant storyline–the unraveling of Hans and Rachel’s marriage–seems to have been labeled by critics as secondary, or even undeveloped. Perhaps this is because so-called important books don’t deal with issues of domesticity and marriage. Or, if they do, we’re quick to give them another, more important label as well: a book about identity, or politics, or globalization, or exile.

Even Hans feels this anxiety of the trivial or insignificant: “A banal state of affairs,” he says, referring to his marriage, “yes—but our problems were banal, the stuff of women’s magazines. All lives, I remember thinking, eventually funnel into the advice columns of women’s magazines.” Yet on the same page, Hans also says, “It is truly a terrible thing when questions of love and family and home are no longer answerable.” This leaves me with the sense that the heart of this book lies herein.

James Wood writes: “There are moments when Rachel’s hostility seems a little undeveloped, and one suspects her absence from New York to be merely the necessary fictional trigger for Han’s hospitable sloth.” And indeed I found myself craving a bit more of Rachel, perhaps to lend a touch of the feminine to this otherwise male-dominated book. But I’m not sure her departure is a fictional trigger alone. Certainly, events in novels must have some sort of causality, but Rachel’s leaving him in her forlorn state, and his, felt as true to me as any of the other events. This response to collective grieving, and perhaps that bizarre sort of inexplicable grieving we begin to feel in our thirties––of lost youth, the narrowing of possibility––felt so spot-on that I did find myself longing for more of Rachel’s story.

Because in many ways, Netherland, as much as it is a portrait of post 9/11 New York, and as much as cricket is, as Wood wrote, an “emblem of foreignness and a dream . . . of America,” is also a portrait of a marriage.

To say that Rachel’s absence is merely a catalyst to the novel, to Hans’ downhill spiral, makes the fictional point of their marriage seem cheap and artificial. But her absence is just as looming as Chuck’s large, alive presence.

Their marriage, perhaps already troubled, began its downward swoop after the events of September 11. Hans and his family had to evacuate their apartment in Tribeca because it was virtually uninhabitable. Though O’Neill does not go into detail—no descriptions of soot or debris or a charred, burning smell—we don’t need it. It is perhaps more powerful to allow our minds to conjure the horror of those collapsing buildings and what they left in their wake, the way their destruction both physically and emotionally intruded upon their living space. It’s the sense of loss of control, the idea that no matter how strong a marriage, how deep a love, external events beyond our control can sometimes alter its course.

The world intrudes on even the most inward-looking relationships. Rachel sees this; Hans does not. And for Hans, that frightening world continually takes him unawares. He reflects:

Some people have no difficult in identifying with their younger incarnations: Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood or college days as if they’d happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now.

And then later, he says:

Perhaps the relevant truth—and it’s one whose existence was apparent to my wife, and I’m sure to much of the world, long before it became apparent to me—is that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you’re paying attention you’ll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble.

Hans’s self-estrangement is perhaps what drives his desire to “review” things with Rachel. He wants to go over the details of their marriage, their separation, because he himself is not sure of the man he is now in relation to the man he was the week before, the month before, the year before. Rachel, however, has no desire to review. She doesn’t need to; she knows who she is. To her, the marriage has collapsed, and no amount of reconsidering or revising will change that fact. Her only option is to move ahead.

It seems Hans’s denial and passivity are what have driven Rachel away. She becomes frustrated with him when he doesn’t respond, doesn’t get angry. For example, toward the end of the novel, on a trip to India, as Rachel and Hans begin to make strides toward getting back together, Rachel is troubled by the poverty of India, by Hans’s heckling for lower fares, that “every spending decision [they] make has a huge impact.” She continues: “You don’t seem at all bothered. You’re just happy splashing in the water.”

Hans does know that without Rachel, he is ultimately lost. During one of his visits to London, he and Rachel take their son, Jake, to the park: “It was the kind of uncomplicated family outing that fortified my belief that our physical separation might yet turn out to be a bad joke.” Hans realizes he doesn’t see things; he understands, retrospectively, the way his desire might have been shading his reality. He needs Rachel to help him. When he speaks of his childhood in the Netherlands, he notes that in such a small country, mystery gives, among other things, a sense of space:

It was in this way, it may be supposed, that I came to step around in a murk of my own making, and to be drifted away from my native place, and in due course to rely on Rachel as a human flashlight. She illuminated things I’d thought perfectly well illuminated.

And here, I can’t help but wonder what it was Rachel was longing for when she, determined, crossed the pond twice: first to come to New York, and then to leave it. Hans says this of Chuck, but the same could be said about Rachel: “He had a clear enough view of the gap between where he stood and where he wished to be, and he was determined to find a way across”. Hans was simply too oblivious to the man he is, the man he was, and the man he wants to become to be aware of any gaps at all. He doesn’t have enough of a sense of what he wants to understand what is missing. He is content to just splash in the waves.

After Chuck tells Hans about his days post-9/11, where he worked emergency triage with the Humane Society, that for many of the volunteer workers it was one of the happiest times of their lives, Hans understands. “The catastrophe had instilled in many¬¬—though not in me—a state of elation. From the beginning, for example, I’d suspected that beneath all the tears and the misery, Rachel’s leaving had basically been a function of euphoria.”

I can’t help but thinking of the dual meanings of the word catastrophe. Not only a momentous, tragic event, but also a denouement, a resolution of conflicts, catharsis. For Rachel, the events allowed her release. They set her free.

Alan Hollinghurst, in the New York Review of Books, critiques the marriage’s portrayal:

Why is this dysfunction in their marriage, long predating the crisis of 2001, kept back for so long, and then so swiftly repressed? Is it in fact a subtle part of the portrait of a man in denial about deep problems in his life? Or is it a sign of the author’s unwillingness to do justice to them? The effect is to make the snappy, uptight, withholding Rachel too typical a figure of female cussedness for so original a book, and their getting back together, with the help of a marriage guidance counselor, is the least interesting part of it.

But relationships don’t move in linear terms. I don’t mean to suggest that a writer should “mimic” this nonlinearity as an excuse to not develop it; that would be both sloppy and unimaginative. However, I don’t think O’Neill’s execution was a matter of artistic laziness. The references to Monica Lewinsky––Hans and Rachel spot her once, wearing work-out clothes, a stark contrast to the suits and infamous blue dress stained in our collective imagination––for example, do huge amounts of work to portray a nation before 9/11 and afterward, and the nonlinear movement of attitudes and fears and obsessions.

Hans’ self-estrangement might be complementary to his own estrangement from a native land–when he reminisces about his childhood in the Netherlands, the nostalgia he evokes seems better suited not to the complexity and conflicts of one’s life but to the remains of a pleasant, ethereal dream. Yet the way Hans recalls his more recent past often feel a bit startling, as he himself is startled by certain memories. He uses the term “discontinued” to describe his alienation from his former selves; whoever that person was had been discontinued, and a new one had taken his place.

In the so-called present of the narrative, for instance, back in England reunited with his family, Rachel offers him tea. Hans says of this moment: “I actually flinch. It comes to me, this question as the pure echo of an identical offer she voiced to me three years ago.” He had been visiting her in London, at her parents’ house, and shortly after she asked him, “Tea?” he learned of her affair with a chef named Martin. I actually flinch, Hans says. Retrospectively, Hans is sensitive and self-aware; it’s the palpable present that eludes him, perhaps because of his inability to link his present self to so many past selves.

And Hans’s self-estrangement also evokes Americans’ estrangement from themselves. Because after September 11, some of us wanted to wear lapel pins and stick American flags from the mirrors of our Ford Explorers, while others of us grumbled that perhaps American foreign policy was to blame, but in a way, both reactions were a sort of grounded attempts at self-awareness. This is who we are, we felt compelled to say. Isn’t it? This is what we believe.

In a way, it’s far easier to make such generalizations about who we are as citizens of a nation; far harder are the nuanced pronouncements about ourselves as inhabitants of a relationship. When Rachel and Hans finally find themselves back together, Hans muses that Rachel, in line with his earlier observations about her connection to her younger selves, saw their “reunion as a continuation.” Hans saw it differently, as two people who had gone their separate ways and had fallen for each other again—an estrangement from his past, a discontinuation in order to reinvent himself. The entire novel is a sort of intense, reinvented longing: a longing for a dream, a longing for love, a longing for perhaps something we can see so clearly yet remains completely unattainable.

Gatsbyesque indeed.

For Further Reading: Works Cited

Hollinghurst, Alan. “Underground Men.” Rev. of Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill. New York Review of Books 25 September 2008.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Post 9/11, a New York of Gatsby Size Dreams and Loss.” Rev. of Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill. New York Times 16 May 2008.

O’Neill, Joseph. Netherland. New York: Pantheon, 2008.

Wood, James. “Beyond a Boundary.” Rev. of Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill. New Yorker 26 May 2008.

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