One-Minute Book Reviews

June 24, 2008

The Turn of the Twin Towers – Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Unreliable Narration — Did the Narrator Do It?

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A Dutch-born banker in Manhattan becomes unmoored in a post-Sept. 11 ghost story with neo-Gothic undertones

Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This beautifully written novel is, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. Perhaps better than any other novel, Netherland captures a vital truth about Sept. 11: The story of New York City after the attacks is a ghost story — a tale of a place haunted by lost people, buildings and illusions.

As in most good ghost stories, a central question is: How credible is the teller of the tale? And as in many, neo-Gothic undertones abound, particularly in Joseph O’Neill’s descriptions of the Chelsea and its dim hallways, baronial staircase and tolerance for baroque tenants, including man who dresses as an angel and buys his wings at a shop called Religious Sex. Hans observes:

“Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of gravel.”

With such characters as a foil, Hans might seem to be a pillar of stolid Dutch respectability. After his wife and son decamp for London, he returns to the wholesome sport of cricket, which he had enjoyed as a boy, and falls in with a network of players that O’Neill evokes vibrantly. The group includes an umpire and streetwise Trinidadian dreamer named Chuck Ramkissoon, who involves Hans at least marginally in an unsavory money-making scheme.

Despite his association with Chuck, Hans stays out of trouble, or so it might seem. He tells his story after returning to London to rejoin his wife, so we know that in a certain sense he has escaped whatever perils he faced New York.

But hints that we may not be able to trust his story begin on the dust jacket, which warns that Netherland is about a New York City that is “phantasmagorical,” or marked by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. A few pages into the novel, after returning to London, Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter. She says that Chuck Ramkisson has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal and that she wants to confirm a fact in her notes — that Hans was Chuck’s business partner. Hans denies it. Netherland has hardly begun, but already we know: The narrator is lying or somebody else is. Soon afterward, we learn that Hans’s wife, Rachel, moved back to London because she began to question what she called “the narrative of our marriage.” Does she have her own fears about him?

The questions mount as the plot circles back to Chuck’s death in the last pages. After learning of her husband’s ties to the cricketer found in the Gowanus, Rachel calls a lawyer. Hans tells us that the attorney opines that “as a practical matter I have nothing to fear.” As a practical matter? Does he have something to fear on other levels?

Netherland never reveals who killed Chuck and, on that count, ends ambiguously. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of the killer is beside the point, and, on one level, she’s right. This novel is less about one man’s death than about fraying welcome mat that America puts out for immigrants of all social classes.

But the identity of the killer does matter – if the murderer was Hans, which would cast the novel in a new light. Nothing explicitly implicates him, but nothing exculpates him either. And if you look up “van den Broek” in a Dutch-English dictionary you find that a possible translation is “from the pine marsh” or “swamp.” The Gowanus Canal was built through a marsh where pine trees apparently grew.

Is it a coincidence that Hans’s name describes the place where Chuck’s body turned up? In a novel in which a man buys his angel’s wings at a store called Religious Sex, you never know.

Best line: Nearly every page has one. Toward the end of the book, Hans and his wife are riding a taxi when Rachel recalls their life in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 – “God, do you remember those sirens?” – and squeezes his hand. “Strange, how such a moment grows in value over a marriage’s course,” Hans reflects. “We gratefully pocket each of them, these sidewalk pennies, and run with them to the bank as if creditors were banging on the door. Which they are, one comes to realize.”

Worst line: “Personally, things remained as they were.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Netherland was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 24, 2008, in the post that preceded this review. This guide focuses on the issue of unreliable narration in the novel as it relates to the question: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon? If you are reading this on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading this on the Web, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

Published: May 2008 www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043

About the author: O’Neill was born in Ireland, grew up mainly in Holland and lives in New York City. He wrote the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes and the family history, Blood-Dark Track.

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. Some critics disagree that The Turn of the Screw involves unreliable narration. A discussion of this aspect of James’s novel appears en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.

Note: The translation of “van den Broek” comes from Yahoo! Babel Fish. If you can provide a more accurate one, would you kindly leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the Contact page?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Netherland
A Novel by Joseph O’Neill
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may copy it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it

Netherland is an elegant study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel. But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. As the dust jacket notes, Netherland is about a city that has become “phantasmagorical,” or characterized by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. Joseph O’Neill never resolves a mystery at the heart of the book: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon, the streetwise Trinidadian dreamer and cricket umpire who has involved Hans in an illegal business? Partly because of its ambiguous ending, Netherland is the rare novel that years from now may still inspire debate.

The publisher of Netherland has posted on its site a reader’s guide to the novel that your group may want to use as a starting point for discussion www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043. That list of questions is better than many, partly because it encourages you to consider such things structure of the novel – a vital aspect of fiction that often receives no attention in publishers’ guides. In other ways, the Pantheon guide reflects a tin ear for the kinds of things that book clubs enjoy discussing. In this case the most obvious is the question of who killed Chuck Ramkissoon. For this reason, although many Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are more comprehensive, this one focuses on that issue.

Questions for Readers

1. The first pages of Netherland say that the remains of Chuck Ramkissoon have been found in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “There were handcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder.” [Page 5] When a dead body turns up early in a novel, you usually find out by the end who killed the person. In Netherland, you don’t. Why do you think Joseph O’Neill left that issue unresolved?

2. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of Chuck’s killer is “beside the point.” Do you believe it is beside the point? Why or why not? How did not learning the identity of the killer affect your view of the novel?

3. As in a traditional murder mystery, the victim hadn’t led a spotless life, and many people might have wanted him dead. Do you believe Chuck was killed by one of the characters in the novel or by someone who never appears in it? Why?

4. The dust jacket says that Netherland is about a city that in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, has become “phantasmagorical.” How, if at all, might this relate to Chuck’s killer?

5. Netherland is to some extent a study in the literary technique known as “unreliable narration.” This involves a narrator we can’t fully trust. Narrators can be unreliable for many reasons. They may be mentally unstable, pathological liars, criminals who want to hide their crimes, older people who have fading memories, or children who are too young to have a clear understanding of events. Or they may be under so much stress that they can’t accept reality, or in what a psychiatrist would call “denial.” (You can read more about the technique by searching for “unreliable narrator: on sites such as Answers.com or Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator). Might any of these apply to Hans van den Broek, the narrator of Netherland?

6. O’Neill hints early on that Hans may be an unreliable narrator. Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter who wants him to confirm a fact in her notes — that he was Chuck’s business partner. [Page 5] Hans denies this. We’re only a few pages into the novel, but already it’s clear: He’s lying (or “in denial”) or someone else is. Did you see other signs that Hans may not be telling his story straight up?

7. Not long afterward, the man at the Chelsea Hotel who wears angel’s wings tells Hans that his cat has disappeared and may have been kidnapped. What do you think happened to the cat? Could Hans have killed it? Why is this scene in the novel? [Page 36]

8. Later Hans takes home a woman named Danielle whom he has met in a diner. He has sex with her and beats her with a belt — “a pale white hitting a pale black” — because, he tells us, he “understood her to need” this. [Page 115] Hans says he was “shocked” when she later failed to return his phone messages. This scene tells you a number of things about him. First, he is capable of violence. Second, his perceptions of reality are “off.” Third, he may have beaten her more severely than he lets on, and this may explain why she didn’t call back. How would you explain his behavior in the scene? Does it affect your overall view of his trustworthiness or lack of it?

9. What did you make of the fact that Hans had never told his wife, Rachel, about Chuck and helping him collect bets for his numbers game? [Page 238] Did you attribute this simply to problems in their marriage? Or do you think something else was going on?

10. Given all of this, could Hans have killed Chuck? If so, would the meaning of the novel be different than if Chuck had been killed by, say, the angry husband of his mistress or by someone who felt Chuck had cheated him in his numbers game?

Extras
11. Many well-known novels have unreliable narrators. These include Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. (Some critics disagree about the last en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.) If you’ve read any, how would you compare them to Netherland?

12. Why does Netherland open with Hans “boxing up” his possessions when he appears to have a high enough position that he could have had someone do this for him? [Page 3] Are the boxes a metaphor for how he boxes up or compartmentalize parts of his life?

Vital statistics:
Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23. 95. Published: May 2008

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. A review appeared immediately after this guide on June 24, 2008.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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