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Two Paths for the Novel


by Joseph O’Neill
Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95


by Tom McCarthy
Vintage, 308 pp., $13.95 (paper)


From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

Netherland is nominally the tale of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch stock analyst, transplanted from London to downtown New York with his wife and young son. When the towers fall, the family relocates to the Chelsea Hotel; soon after, a trial separation occurs. Wife and son depart once more for London, leaving Hans stranded in a world turned immaterial, phantasmagoric: “Life itself had become disembodied. My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.” Every other weekend he visits his family, hoping “that flying high into the atmosphere, over boundless massifs of vapor or small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air, might also lift me above my personal haze”—the first of many baroque descriptions of clouds, light, and water.

On alternate weekends, he plays cricket on Staten Island, the sole white man in a cricket club that includes Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian wiseacre, whose outsize dreams of building a cricket stadium in the city represent a Gatsbyesque commitment to the American Dream/human possibility/narrative with which Hans himself is struggling to keep faith. The stage is set, then, for a “meditation” on identities both personal and national, immigrant relations, terror, anxiety, the attack of futility on the human consciousness and the defense against same: meaning. In other words, it’s the post–September 11 novel we hoped for. (Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?) It’s as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence.

But Netherland is only superficially about September 11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity. Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis—the Anglo-American liberal middle class—meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert.

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’” they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism’s metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go “back to the things themselves!”; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

Netherland, unlike much lyrical Realism, has some consciousness of these arguments, and so it is an anxious novel, unusually so. It is absolutely a post-catastrophe novel but the catastrophe isn’t terror, it’s Realism. In its opening pages, we get the first hint of this. Hans, packing up his London office in preparation to move to New York, finds himself buttonholed by a senior vice-president “who reminisced for several minutes about his loft on Wooster Street and his outings to the ‘original’ Dean & DeLuca.” Hans finds this nostalgia irritating: “Principally he was pitiable—like one of those Petersburgians of yesteryear whose duties have washed him up on the wrong side of the Urals.” But then:

It turns out he was right, in a way. Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word, somebody once told me, refers literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. You might say, if you’re the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists on memory’s repetitive mower—on the sort of purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course.

None of this means that I wish I were back there now; and naturally I’d like to believe that my own retrospection is in some way more important than the old S.V.P’s, which, when I was exposed to it, seemed to amount to not much more than a cheap longing. But there’s no such thing as a cheap longing, I’m tempted to conclude these days, not even if you’re sobbing over a cracked fingernail. Who knows what happened to that fellow over there? Who knows what lay behind his story about shopping for balsamic vinegar? He made it sound like an elixir, the poor bastard.

This paragraph is structured like a recognized cliché (i.e., We had come, as they say, to the end of the road). It places before us what it fears might be a tired effect: in this case, the nostalgia-fused narrative of one man’s retrospection (which is to form the basis of this novel). It recognizes that effect’s inauthenticity, its lack of novelty, even its possible dullness—and it employs the effect anyway. By stating its fears Netherland intends to neutralize them. It’s a novel that wants you to know that it knows you know it knows. Hans invites us to sneer lightly at those who are “prone to general observations” but only as a prelude to just such an observation, presented in language frankly genteel and faintly archaic (“so one is told and forlornly hopes”). Is it cheap longing? It can’t be because—and this is the founding, consoling myth of lyrical Realism—the self is a bottomless pool. What you can’t find in the heavens (anymore), you’ll find in the soul. Yet there remains, in Netherland, a great anxiety about the depth or otherwise of the soul in question (and thus Netherland’s entire narrative project). Balsamic vinegar and Dean & DeLuca in the first two pages are no accident. All the class markers are openly displayed and it’s a preemptive strike: Is the reader suggesting that white middle-class futures traders are less authentic, less interesting, less capable of interiority than anyone else?

Enter Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck has no such anxieties. He is unselfconscious. He moves through the novel simply being, and with abandon, saying those things that the novel—given its late place in the history of the novel—daren’t, for fear of seeming naive. It’s Chuck who openly states the central metaphor of the novel, that cricket is “a lesson in civility. We all know this; I do not need to say more about it.” It’s left to Chuck to make explicit the analogy between good behavior on pitch and immigrant citizenship: “And if we step out of line, believe me, this indulgence disappears. What this means…is, we have an extra responsibility to play the game right.” Through Chuck idealisms and enthusiasms can be expressed without anxiety:

I love the national bird,” Chuck clarified. “The noble bald eagle represents the spirit of freedom, living as it does in the boundless void of the sky.”

I turned to see whether he was joking. He wasn’t. From time to time, Chuck actually spoke like this.

And again:

It’s an impossible idea, right? But I’m convinced it will work. Totally convinced. You know what my motto is?”

I didn’t think people had mottoes anymore,” I said.

Think fantastic,” Chuck said. “My motto is, Think Fantastic.”

Chuck functions here as a kind of authenticity fetish, allowing Hans (and the reader) the nostalgic pleasure of returning to a narrative time when symbols and mottos were full of meaning and novels weren’t neurotic, but could aim themselves simply and purely at transcendent feeling. This culminates in a reverie on the cricket pitch. Chuck instructs Hans to put his Old World fears aside and hit the ball high (“How else are you going to get runs? This is America”) and Hans does this, and the movement is fluid, unexpected, formally perfect, and Hans permits himself an epiphany, expressed, like all epiphanies, in one long breathless, run-on sentence:

All of which may explain why I began to dream in all seriousness of a stadium and black and brown and even a few white faces crowded in bleachers, and Chuck and me laughing over drinks in the members’ enclosure and waving to people we know, and stiff flags on the pavilion roof, and fresh white sight-screens, and the captains in blazers looking up at a quarter spinning in the air, and a stadium-wide flutter of expectancy as the two umpires walk onto the turf square and its omelette-colored batting track, whereupon, with clouds scrambling in from the west, there is a roar as the cricket stars trot down the pavilion steps onto this impossible grass field in America, and everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalized.

There are those clouds again. Under them, Hans is rendered authentic, real, natural. It’s the dream that Plato started, and Hans is still having it.

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