But Netherland is anxious. It knows the world has changed and we do not stand in the same relation to it as we did when Balzac was writing. In Père Goriot, Balzac makes the wallpaper of the Pension Vauquer speak of the lives of the guests inside. Hans does not have quite this metaphysical confidence: he can’t be Chuck’s flawless interpreter. And so Netherland plants inside itself its own partial critique, in the form of Hans’s wife, Rachel, whose “truest self resisted triteness, even of the inventive romantic variety, as a kind of falsehood.” It is she who informs Hans of what the reader has begun to suspect:
“Basically, you didn’t take him seriously.”
She has accused me of exoticizing Chuck Ramkissoon, of giving him a pass, of failing to grant him a respectful measure of distrust, of perpetrating a white man’s infantilizing elevation of a black man.
Hans denies the charge, but this conversation signals the end of Chuck’s privileged position (gifted to him by identity politics, the only authenticity to survive the twentieth century). The authenticity of ethnicity is shown to be a fake—Chuck’s seeming naturalness is simply an excess of ego, which overflows soon enough into thuggery and fraud. For a while Chuck made Hans feel authentic, but then, later, the submerged anger arrives, as it always does: what makes Chuck more authentic than Hans anyway? It makes sense that Hans’s greatest moment of antipathy toward Chuck (he is angry because Chuck has drawn him into his shady, violent business dealings) should come after three pages of monologue, in which Chuck tells a tale of island life, full of authentic Spanish names and local customs and animals and plants, which reads like a Trinidadian novel:
Very little was said during the rest of that journey to New York City. Chuck never apologized or explained. It’s probable that he felt his presence in the car amounted to an apology and his story to an explanation—or, at the very least, that he’d privileged me with an opportunity to reflect on the stuff of his soul. I wasn’t interested in drawing a line from his childhood to the sense of authorization that permitted him, as an American, to do what I had seen him do. He was expecting me to make the moral adjustment—and here was an adjustment I really couldn’t make.
Once the possibility of Chuck’s cultural authenticity is out of play, a possible substitute is introduced: world events. Are they the real thing? During a snowstorm, Hans and Rachel have the argument everyone has (“She said, ‘Bush wants to attack Iraq as part of a right-wing plan to destroy international law and order as we know it and replace it with the global rule of American force’”), which ends for Hans as it ends for many people, though you get the sense Hans believes his confession to be in some way transgressive:
Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat? I had no idea; and to be truthful, and to touch on my real difficulty, I had little interest. I didn’t really care.
But this conclusion is never in doubt: even as Rachel rages on, Hans’s mind wanders repeatedly to the storm, its specks of snow like “small and dark…flies,” and also like ” a cold toga draped [over] the city.” The nineteenth-century flaneur’s ennui has been transplanted to the twenty-first-century bourgeois’s political apathy—and made beautiful. Other people’s political engagement is revealed to be simply another form of inauthenticity. (“World events had finally contrived a meaningful test of their capacity for conscientious political thought. Many of my acquaintances, I realized, had passed the last decade or two in a state of intellectual and psychic yearning for such a moment.”) The only sophisticated thing to do, the only literary thing to do, is to stop listening to Rachel and think of a night sky:
A memory of Rachel and me flying to Hong Kong for our honeymoon, and how in the dimmed cabin I looked out of my window and saw lights, in small glimmering webs, on the placeless darkness miles below. I pointed them out to Rachel. I wanted to say something about these creaturely cosmic glows, which made me feel, I wanted to say, as if we had been removed by translation into another world.
This sky serves the same purpose as another one near the end of the novel in which “a single cavaliering cloud trailed a tattered blue cloak of rain” and to which a “tantalizing metaphysical significance” attaches, offering Hans “sanctuary: for where else, outside of reverie’s holy space, was I to find it?” Where else indeed? These are tough times for Anglo-American liberals. All we’ve got left to believe in is ourselves.
In Netherland, only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence, this “translation into another world.” Which is why personal things are so relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language. Lip service is paid to the sanctity of mystery:
One result [of growing up in Holland], in a temperament such as my own, was a sense that mystery is treasurable, even necessary: for mystery, in such a crowded, see-through little country, is, among other things, space.
But in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties (“a static turnstile like a monster’s unearthed skeleton”) and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry”), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV “dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs.” Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife’s lactose intolerance becomes “an unknown hinterland to our marriage”; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror:
And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon…. I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to the pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.
To which one wants to say, isn’t it hard to see the dark when it’s so lyrically presented? And also: grapefruits?
In an essay written half a century ago, Robbe-Grillet imagined a future for the novel in which objects would no longer “be merely the vague reflection of the hero’s vague soul, the image of his torments, the shadow of his desires.” He dreaded the “total and unique adjective, which attempt[s] to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things.” But this adjectival mania is still our dominant mode, and Netherland is its most masterful recent example. And why shouldn’t it be? The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegans Wake did not fundamentally disturb Realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed Realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But if literary Realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound. Netherland bears this anxiety trace, it foregrounds its narrative nostalgia, asking us to note it, and look kindly upon it:
I was startled afresh by the existence of this waterside vista, which on a blurred morning such as this had the effect, once we passed under the George Washington Bridge, of canceling out centuries.
The centuries are duly canceled. What follows is a page of landscape portraiture, seen from a train’s window (“Clouds steaming on the clifftops foxed all sense of perspective, so that it seemed to me that I saw distant and fabulously high mountains”). Insert it into any nineteenth-century novel (again, a test first suggested by Robbe-Grillet) and you wouldn’t see the joins. The passage ends with a glimpse of a “near-naked white man” walking through the trees by the track; he is never explained and never mentioned again, and this is another rule of lyrical Realism: that the random detail confers the authenticity of the Real. As perfect as it all seems, in a strange way it makes you wish for urinals.
Halfway through the novel, Hans imagines being a professional cricketer, lyrically and at length. He dreams of the ball hanging “before me like a Christmas bauble,” of a bat preternaturally responsive by means of “a special dedication of memory,” and after he’s done, he asks for our indulgence:
How many of us are completely free of such scenarios? Who hasn’t known, a little shamefully, the joys they bring?
It’s a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most practitioners of lyrical Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O’Neill. I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject. Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that “fine white thread running, through years and years,” and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world (“I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite”), but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude. At a certain point in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss. Netherland flirts with that idea, too. Not knowing what to do with photographs of his young son, Hans gives them to Chuck’s girlfriend, Eliza, who organizes photo albums for a living:
“People want a story,” she said. “They like a story.”
I was thinking of the miserable apprehension we have of even those existences that matter most to us. To witness a life, even in love—even with a camera—was to witness a monstrous crime without noticing the particulars required for justice.
“A story,” I said suddenly. “Yes. That’s what I need.”
I wasn’t kidding.