Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cricket and redemption in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

Cricket and life are two very different things, but often to lovers of the game they seem the same, or at least to inhabit a continuous plane of existence. The contest of bat and ball seems a smaller version of the great game of life; the variability of pitches, weather and match situation a symptom of the workings of chance in all human affairs; the effort to impose oneself on the rectangle of brown within the circle of green emblematic in some mysterious but compelling way of the human condition in general. "For what was an innings if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and mastery, the variable world?" asks Hans van den Broek, the stoical and embattled protagonist of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and we see immediately what Hans means. Indeed, Hans is totally adrift in the larger "variable world", and for a brief period cricket is his only means of hanging on at the crease on the pitch of life.
O'Neill's novel, his third, has its home in the scattered cricket fields of New York, one of cricket's earliest centres (as one character in the book points out, the first international cricket match was played between the USA and Canada in Manhattan the mid-nineteenth century). Although Hans is a Dutchman married to an Englishwoman, his work in banking has brought him to New York, where very soon he begins to inhabit "the nativity New York encourages even its most fleeting visitor to imagine for himself".

But soon Hans's world begins to collapse around him. His wife Rachel feels their marriage is unsatisfactory, and wishes to move back to London with their young son, Jake. Hans is unable to dissuade Rachel and, ever the one to take the blame for a shared crisis, is left with a great burden of rejection and failure. A family man, he is now cut loose from all his moorings. His arc is a classic trope in the American novel, that of the limping and defeated loser struggling with his intransigent nature in an environment of exuberance, optimism, and self-reinvention. Hans shares many similarities, for instance, with Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Saul Bellow's great short novel Seize The Day. Both live in hotels, both are estranged from their wives and torn from their children, and both are, "to anyone who could be bothered to pay attention, noticeably lost" (this is from O'Neill).
Hans used to play some cricket as a boy in Holland, and one day, taking up an invitation after a chance meeting with a Pakistani cab-driver, he goes to a weekend club game at Staten Island, and finds himself the only white man in a motley crowd of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and West Indians. But this sense of being pulled out into a new set far removed from his usual world is a relief to him, and he finds playing cricket again immensely calming. O'Neill evokes this mood in his majestic description of "the sights and sounds and rhythms of a full day's cricket, in which unhurried time is portioned out by the ticking of ball against bat." Cricket in this description is a kind of restorative clock set to a more languorous speed than others, encouraging everybody to slow down and appreciate the big picture and the finer details.
It is at the cricket, too, that Hans meets an older Trinidadian man called Chuck Ramkissoon, a great dreamer and schemer who talks "incessantly, indefatigably, virtuosically", is a master of the grand pronouncement ("Women are responsible for the survival of the world; men are responsible for its glories"), and has a plan for building a cricket stadium in Brooklyn. The stadium, in Chuck's optimistic view, will make New York a centre of world cricket and restore the game to its lapsed prominence in American life. Hans finds succour in this unlikely brotherhood of men come together through a shared love of the great game, and in the companionship and infectious enthusiasm of Chuck and his starred-and-striped motto of "Think fantastic".
Netherland is an exquisite achievement on every level, from the stream of beautifully weighted and sonorous sentences that ripple on page after page to the larger architecture of narrative time and of plot. Here is Hans explaining (and thereby making an apparently simple matter dense) why he cannot slog the ball like the rest of his teammates, because cricket represents a force of continuity within his own fragmented self:

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations. Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood and college days as if they'd happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavours have shaped who I am now. The schoolboy at the Gymnasium Haganum; the Leiden student; the clueless trainee executive at Shell; the analyst in London; even the thirty-year-old who flew to New York with his excited young wife; my natural sense is that all are faded, by the by, discontinued. But I still think, and I fear will always think, of myself as the young man who got a hundred runs in Amstelveen with a flurry of cuts, who took that diving catch at second slip in Rotterdam, who lucked into a hat trick at the Haagse Cricket Club. These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me and capable, during those long nights alone in the hotel when I sought refuge from the sorriest feelings, of keeping me awake as I relived them in bed and powerlessly mourned the mysterious promise they held. To reinvent myself in order to bat the American way, that baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting, involved more than the trivial abandonment of a hard-won style of hitting a ball. It meant snipping a fine white thread running, through years and years, to my mothered self.
"These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories"this is very fine and apt. And let us look at this paragraph again and all its pauses and qualifications, the way in which the sentences seem to keep interrupting themselves: "I, however, seem given to" "But I still think, and I fear will always think..." "These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me and capable, during those long nights alone..." "It meant snipping a fine white thread running, through years and years..."

This is the characteristic cadence O'Neill has forged for his colourless and yet extraordinarily interesting protagonist's narration, and much of the pleasure of Netherland is in catching the delayed gratification of these stretched-out sentences: "Those circumstances were, I should say, unbearable", or, (moving from two pauses to four very even ones which in this case also dramatise the peace of the moment) "Not knowing what to say, I got up and stood next to him, and for a while we surveyed, twenty-two floors down, the roving black brooms of four-dollar umbrellas", or to a mix of short and long pauses: "Perhaps the relevant truth
and it's one whose existence was apparent to my wife, and I'm sure to much of the world, long before it became apparent to meis that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you're paying attention you'll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or years has pulled you deep into trouble." The writing in Netherland has its own temporal current, a kind of slow, rapt murmur, and it does not take very long before we are pulled deep into the text by these rhythms.

And an old post, on Saul Bellow's Seize The Day.

4 comments:

Amit said...

Sounds like a must read! "the nativity New York encourages even its most fleeting visitor to imagine for himself": so true, I'd always felt like that. And "These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me and capable, during those long nights alone in the hotel when I sought refuge from the sorriest feelings, of keeping me awake as I relived them in bed and powerlessly mourned the mysterious promise they held": wow, breathless, one of the most delightfully yet quietly rivetting sentences I've come across this year.

But Chandrahas, don't you think of it as a 9/11 novel the way the NYTimes reviewer does? I kind of buy his argument; this book's deeper and subtler that Foer, Delillo and McEwan's recents. But I must go read it first. Hope it's come to a bookstore near me.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - To my mind Netherland is probably deeper and subtler than DeLillo, Foer, and McEwan (none of whom I have ever read with any excitement) even without this 9/11 frame of reference. In any case, that was what everybody seemed to be talking about, so I didn't care to belabor the issue - there were other things in the novel that made me prick up my ears, and I wrote about those.

I realise though (climbs down from his perch) that I can't afford to sound so haughty right now, as I've just called a novel a very unusual post-9/11 novel in a piece that's appearing this weekend.

Anand MV said...

I have read Bellow's Herzog. There is this adjectival overload in his prose which is stultifying and beyond a point, chokes you. May be I am being impatient here.

As you mention in your post on Seize the Day, Bellow does remind one of Dickens. Since most of his novels were serialized, Dickens had to ensure that the fluidity of his plot was not constricted by the portraiture. Bellow though, given the license to roam, wanders in his prose giving us portraitures of brilliant but often exacting vividness and stilted plots.

Spelunker said...

I was not that impressed with this book and would not agree that the book works on every level - I could not get interested in the characters at the hotel and while I found a few lyrical passages, I do not think the narrator was convincing. He threw in a few lines about his work status (six thousand dollar rent, multi-million dollar status) but these seemed to be just short-cuts to establish that he did not want for money. And the segment where he reunites with his wife because they 'had fallen for third parties to whom we were already married' did not work for me at all; it just seemed glib, without hinting even a bit at what it was that made them turn back to each other. O'Neill writes beautifully at times (the passage near the end where he talks about using Google maps is exquisite), but the whole is far, far less than the sum of its parts, I would say.