23 July 2008

Ur-Story: A Review of Netherland

If the theme-blog work we've been doing on Ur-story is to have any meaning, it must be applicable when reading novels. To recap: we've entertained the thesis that the essence of fiction has to do with the great grief and loss one experiences when confronting one's own mortality and the insignificance it entails in the greater scheme of things. Great literature, and in our case, great fiction involves the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the dark night of the soul. Of course, this response takes many forms—and we've looked at a few of these: myth and religion, tragedy, satire, comedy. And we've looked at some interesting takes on the sort of "objective correlative" employed to help us conceptualize, and, yes, avoid, confronting this essential understanding. Now, let's look at examples from contemporary fiction.

First, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. The novel begins in London in 2006 with a phone call to the narrator, Hans van den Broek, inquiring about the death of one Chuck Ramkissoon, a West Indean islander with South Indian roots who had been a friend of Hans's in New York.
"She tells me that Chuck's 'remains' have been found in the Gowanus Canal. There were handcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder. ...It has been extablished that Chuck Ramkissoon's body lay in the water by the Home Depot building for over two years, among crabs and car tires and shopping carts, until a so-called urban diver made a 'macabre discovery' while filming a school of striped bass." (pp. 5-6)
The remaining 250 or so pages recap Hans's relationship with Chuck, a cricket referee and incipient promoter, both on and off the pitch and Hans's on-and-off relationship with Rachel, his wife, and Hans's love-hate relationship with New York (isn't everybody's?) and Han's attempt to piece together in his own mind clues as to who might have offed Chuck and why. The novel meanders, lingering like an endless test match on a languorous summer day. No mysteries are solved. A marriage dissolves and reintegrates, presumably on newly-negotiated terms. Characters make brief cameos, only never to be heard from again. Business sort-of goes on post-9/11. Immigrants from the sub-continent and the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, Northern Europe play cricket in New York environs, one assumes, to establish some connection with the sport of their youth. Though there does not seem much urgency to any of it.

Hans's response to the upheavals of 9/11 is to drift. Drift and reminisce. Even, at the end, with his wife and son gliding up and around on the gleaming London Eye, Hans is content to drift back in memory to an earlier Staten Island Ferry ride toward the Twin Towers with his mother which, in turn, reminds him of a childhood memory of pencils (but NOT wickets!?). It requires some patience on the part of the reader to un-nestle the Russian dolls of Hans's reminiscences. And the form of the story—told, as it is, mostly in first-person POV memory—puts us at some remove from the sensory perceptions of the narrator. To distinguish between the frame story and the nested stories, O'Neill modulates between present-tense verbs and past—this is an invaluable aid. O'Neill's descriptive language is lovely, and the tone he achieves is apt, capturing Hans's mood of drift and alienation not only from his surroundings, but from himself. Yet, there is a level of abstractness, a remove in the diction, that keeps the reader out as well. For example, the narrator, reunited with his wife and child, goes to South India (Chuck Ramkissoon's heriditary homeland) for a brief holiday:
"We flew to Colombo and thence, as travelers used to say, to the Keralan city of Trivandrum, which on a map can be found almost at the very tip of India. I was worried about Jake catching a strange Indian disease; however, once we were established in a simple family hotel colonized by darting caramel lizards and surrounded by coconut trees filled, incongruously to my mind, with crows, I was quite content. This was at a seaside place. There was a lot to look at. Women wrapped in bright lengths of cloth walked up and down the beach balancing bunched red bananas on their heads and offering coconuts and mangoes and papayas. Tug-of-war teams of fishermen tugged fishing nets onto the beach. Tourists from nothern parts of India ambled along the margin of the sea. Foreigners lounged on sunbeds, magnanimously ignoring the sand-colored dogs dozing beneath them. Lifeguards, tiny slender men in blue shirts and blue shorts, attentively inspected the Arabian Sea and from time to time blew on whistles and waved swimmers away from dangerous waters; and indeed on one occasion an Italian yoga instructor, a long-limbed male, became stuck in a web of currents and had to be rescued by a lifeguard who skimmed over the water like an insect flying to the rescue of a spider." (pp.220-221)
This is all very fine. Visual description of the highest order. Good for a travelogue, yet, but for the scantily-imagined whistle, it could just as easily come from a postcard or television show. My god, there's even an Indiana Jones-type map. There is nothing in that passage that convinces the reader that Hans is actually there or, better yet, puts the reader on that important beach. There is no sound of ocean wave, no call of crow (incongruous to his and our minds), no snapping of palm frond, no whipping of sand against seawall. One wonders how the flowers (if there even were any) smelled. The spices. The tradewinds. The rotting fish in the abandoned nets. The moldy fishing barks. The random cookfires. Those mangy, mewling (?) dogs. How did those (tiny) red bananas taste. The sweet-fresh mangoes. The newly-split coconut. What did the sand feel between Hans's crinkled toes—that on Long Island or Brooklyn or England's southern strands? How did the Christmas breeze tousle his hair, rattle the ends of his unbuttoned, untucked blue, Brooks Brothers' OCBD? How did the (in-)different sun strike his shoulder? These are the sorts of particularites that bring the reader in, and O'Neill simply nowhere provides them. And, hey, don't spiders skim across the surfaces of their webs to 'rescue' trapped insects?

Perhaps, to be generous, it's part of an authorial strategy to induce in the reader the sense of drift and alienation his narrator experiences. Of this, we cannot say. We can only say we wanted to be closer to Hans's compelling experience—just as Hans ultimately desires to be closer to his family—and were precluded. Still, drift, alienation, anomie, and wistfulness are appropriate and acute modern responses to the realities of what we have called the Ur-story. And, on this basis, we can give Joseph O'Neill's Netherland high marks. One wonders, though, whether the bloated, manacled corpse of Chuck Ramkissoon is sufficient stimulus for this response: Hans doesn't seem to muster much energy or emotion in response to this 'image' (a couple of overseas phone calls to the police detective in New York), so why should we? We did, however, want to learn more about cricket after reading this novel, and promptly found a match to observe in suburban Atlanta.

1 comment:

Toast said...

Why do you bother reading novels? Everything you say here suggests that the novel can only interfere with your imaginative "connection" with whatever scene your attention falls on at any given moment. You're much more interested in your own ludicrous notions of presence and emotional force than in the aesthetic effects that someone else (a novelist for example) can accomplish, which brings us to your Ur-story thesis. What's the point here? Do you want to reduce all fiction to one boring, narrow platitude? That's pretty much what you're doing. Either give up reading the work of others and simply indulge your own imaginative waffle, or try to be receptive to aesthetic effects that you haven't already anticipated and mapped out for yourself. The way you read this novel is like going to a football game determined in advance that unless it ends with Doug Flutey's hail-mary miracle, it can't possibly live up to expectations.