Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Critics went gaga over this recent novel by Joseph O'Neill (who btw, is half-Turkish, my fellow half-Turks might be interested to know. He is also the author of a memoir about his split heritage, a copy of which I gave to my brother though I'm pretty sure he never read it just as I didn't read it but still hope to one day). Anyway the novel is good every which way--setting, characters, metaphors small and large, but I confess I never got beyond thinking it's good. Happy to read it once, unlikely to read it again. For a more loving view and a strong case for the value of an extended metaphor re: cricket see James Wood's take in the New Yorker.

Some reviews see the novel as a post-colonial Great Gatsby (I confess I also admire, but don’t worship, the feet of Fitzgerald). The narrator is Dutch, a finance guy living with his wife and child in Manhattan when 9/11 hits. His wife splits with the kid back to London and the narrator is left gutted, wandering, but still pretty rich. So he ends up hanging out with this cricket club made up of much poorer immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean and led by Chuck Ramkissoon, the would-be Gatsby, whose murder opens the novel. Chuck is possibly involved with the Russian mafia but definitely has big dreams, including opening a major cricket field in NY. The narrator is drawn to him despite misgivings, which makes this a sort of Gatsby in reverse—the Nick Carroway character is rich, the Gatsby character is poor. All of which I found intellectually interesting but not terribly emotionally rousing.

But still it’s a well written novel. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how characters are written, including the moment when characters are first introduced, the physical description, the use of their thoughts, the metaphoric descriptions attached to them… anything that shapes character. And I especially admired this description of Chuck which follows a dialogue in which he goes off on a long list: “Chuck wasn’t going to stop there. He believed in facts, in their momentousness and charm. He had no option, of course: who was going to listen to mere opinion from him?” What interests me is the way the narrator makes a broad comment about the character—taking the moment and using it to indicate a pattern of behavior and then expands that pattern out to a comment on the world in which we we live. Chuck is an immigrant and poor, not to be taken seriously unless he backs his opinions with facts. That moment of narrative "show and tell" makes Chuck feel real and deepens the scope of the novel.

Lately I’ve been thinking too about iconic characters, and what makes them iconic. Gatsby is, but in the end Chuck probably isn’t though he had the potential to be. He’s left a little too much of a mystery for me. He doesn’t actually feel quite as important to this novel as Gatsby does to his own (note to self: put character name in title should you wish iconic status).

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