9/11 Fiction: Joseph O'Neill, 'Netherland'

Saturday, 22 February 2014

(Image: book jacket photograph of the 2009 edition of Netherland published by Fourth Estate. Photo by Michael Duva/Getty Images)

"The week before, Jake and I had played in his grandparents' garden.

We gardened together. I demonstrated how to use a shovel. When I dug up the topsoil, I was taken aback: countless squirming creatures ate and moved and multiplied underfoot. The very ground we stood on was revealed as a kind of ocean, crowded and immeasurable and without light."
- Joseph O'Neill, Netherland (pp. 80-81)

One of the modules I took this year focused on contemporary American novels, something which I haven't had much chance to study in depth on my course yet and also one of my favourite areas of literature. We read a variety of contemporary novels, looking at how recent events have (or haven't) changed the ways in which American writers tackle issues around them and the styles in which they choose to do so. A few weeks of classes were dedicated to the 9/11 legacy, something I've been curious about since reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - which came to be one of my favourite books and one that may end up featuring as a primary text in my dissertation. Post-9/11 writers came under intense scrutiny for their work, understandably considering the very fresh wound that the attacks left in the consciousness of the American public. Not all critics felt it was in good taste to write about the atrocities, certainly not to 'use' them as a narrative device in fiction, and unleashed scathing reviews on authors. Approaching tragedy is a difficult task for any author, but particularly in such a fast-moving literary sphere where events are written about almost as they happen. Joseph O'Neill's Netherland was one of the novels that received good reviews, suggesting its treatment of September 11th was one seen as considered and genuine - certainly, the novel is unsensational. There is no description of the attacks, no 'I was ___ when the towers fell'. O'Neill made a pertinent point about the seeming obsession with self-identification in relation to the attacks when interviewed about the novel:
"September 11 is one of those events that exist on the border of language, and I think Hans is one of thousands who find it almost impossible to reduce the experience to words. [...] He makes a point of saying, "I wasn't there, I was watching it on TV. I might as well have been in Timbuktu." [...] There's such a disparity between the people falling out of those windows and the rest of us who were in Manhattan at that time that it feels like an obscenity to lay claim to the kudos of the survivor - the whole "I was there" racket. Hans is right. You can't say you were there. They were there."
- Joseph O'Neill (interviewed by Charlie Reilly for the Contemporary Literature journal published by the University of Wisconsin Press, Spring 2011)

Like Cormac McCarthy's avoidance of an explanation of the terrible event that leads to the devastation in The Road (another text we studied in the module), O'Neill's avoidance of 9/11 allows the novel to focus on the human story he gives the reader and stops the morbid fascination everyone seems to have with the images of people falling, refusing to give a description to the horror of the event. The title of an essay I had to write featured a quote from Don DeLillo (another 9/11 author, of Falling Man): 
"There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space" ('In the Ruins of the Future')
Netherland feels like a genuine attempt to do just that. There isn't any grandiose reference to politics (his protagonist Hans points out the oddness of people who seemed to have been waiting for 'world events [to] finally [contrive] a meaningful test of their capacity for conscientious political thought'). There are no descriptions of the scenes of the day, but there is a sensitive portrayal of the changes that day made in O'Neill's characters, and it feels honest. I won't lie: the long-winded passages about cricket did have me skimming through a little. I hate cricket (years of being dragged along to watch, I suppose). The cricket is important though - providing an overarching storyline and metaphor for 'extra-American' ideas in a story focused on an immigrant. O'Neill certainly has a way with words. Some of the phrases he uses are so beautiful, almost lyrical, and I found myself typing up quotes as I read. It is refreshing to see 9/11 as a backdrop, not the day's events used as a narrative to shock readers into what sometimes feels like submission - and despite my dislike of cricket, I greatly enjoyed it. Well recommended. 
(The film rights were also bought by Oprah Winfrey's company, with the script to be written by Christopher Hampton - who wrote Atonement - and apparently in line to be directed by Sam Mendes. It's been a bit quiet on the film front though, so we'll have to see!)

"A small anchor fixed the boat to the bed of the cove. I lay on my side and closed my eyes. The rocking of the boat by the waves was soothing but unknown. The men on the shore were asleep. Not the twelve-year-old, though. He shifted and lay on his back and decided to look up at the sky. What he saw took him by surprise. He was basically a city kid. He had never really seen the night sky for what it is. As he stared up at millions of stars, he was filled with a dread he had never known before."
- Netherland (p. 264)

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