One-Minute Book Reviews

June 10, 2008

During Yesterday’s Power Blackout in New Jersey, Life Imitated ‘Netherland’ Imitating Life

Update 7:05 p.m. Tuesday: Another power outage! I have just been “evacuated” from the library, in the words of the staff, for the second time in two days. This happened during the weekly Open Mic night in the library cafe, where a guitarist had just finished singing “The Mighty Quinn.” (This is our library’s unofficial anthem, played at every Open Mic. What’s your library’s anthem?) The new outage struck less than 24 hours after yesterday’s blackout ended. This power failure seems less extensive, though, because the traffic lights are only flickering, not out. Luckily I have tomorrow’s post written, so unless a catastrophe occurs, it will go up by morning.

Further update 1:15 p.m. Wednesday: A state of emergency has been declared in Essex County, NJ: www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/100000_pseg_customers_still_in.html. If you can’t access that Star-Ledger site, you can find a lot of information and pictures of the damage on the local news site Baristanet www.baristanet.com.

We know the lights went out, but we don’t know many people had that “we’re-all-going-to-die-sex”

Have your life and reading ever intersected in an uncanny way? More than 75,000 of us lost power yesterday after a fire broke out in midafternoon at an electrical switching station in West Orange, New Jersey. The blackout brought out a lot of people’s latent Eagle Scout: The library in my town evacuated all the patrons, but the staff soldiered on, and until the police showed up, a businessman in a pinstriped suit directed in traffic in 90-degree heat.

But there was no possibility of doing any serious writing – I have a Mac with a battery prone to sudden-death failures when the charge falls below 33 percent – so I headed over to an air-conditioned pizza place in a part of town that still had power. I settled in with my half-finished copy of Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s elegant novel of life in New York City after September 11, 2001, and found myself reading a description of the August 2003 blackout that struck much of the Northeast.

In the scene, Hans, the banker who narrates the novel, goes up to the roof of his residential hotel in Manhattan, where tenants have gathered to watch night descend on a city bereft of power. He meets a man who predicts, in effect, that the city will turn into Lord of the Flies during the outage. Hans reflects:

“But in fact, as everybody knows, the blackout gave rise to an outbreak of civic responsibility. From the Bronx to Staten Island, citizens appointed themselves traffic cops, gave rides to strangers, housed and fed the stranded. It also transpired that the upheaval provoked a huge number of romantic encounters, a collective surge of passion not seen, I read somewhere, since the ‘we’re-all-going-to-die-sex’ in which, apparently, everybody had indulged in the second half of September two years previously – an analysis I found a little hard to accept, since it was my understanding that all sex, indeed all human activity, fell into that category.”

I don’t know how much of the “we’re-all-going-to-die” sex we had here in New Jersey yesterday. But I do know, now that I’ve finished Netherland, that on nearly every page you’ll find writing as good as you do in that passage.

To read a longer excerpt from and find the reading group guide to Netherland, click here www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043.

To read about yesterday’s power blackout in northern New Jersey, click here www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/30000_without_power_in_essex_c.html.

© 2008 Janice. Harayda. All rights reserved.

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