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.