The 1950s craze for science fiction, spurred by a combination of cold war paranoia, terror of the bomb, and a yearning for a bright, new, clean, and limitless world, threw up some wonderfully weird magazines. Most of the stories they contained were all too dispensable—or perhaps one was too young to appreciate them?—but who could forget their cover illustrations, depicting fantastical cities of the far future, with mile-high skyscrapers, viaducts soaring into the clouds, flying cars, and sky-borne trains. Nowadays, seeing photographs of the city of Dubai, we of the older generation rub our eyes in amazement. In this city in the desert, the future, that in our young days seemed impossibly far off, or just plain impossible, has already arrived, and—who would have thought?—it is just as dementedly kitschy as anything dreamed up for the covers of New Worlds or Astounding Science Fiction.
Joseph O’Neill, by a stroke of inspiration, has set his new novel, The Dog, in Dubai. The books by which he is best known, the prize-winning novel Netherland, and the earlier Blood-Dark Track, a family memoir, are primarily about place, and placelessness. This is hardly remarkable. O’Neill’s own provenance, as Blood-Dark Track amply illustrates, is intricate in the extreme, his background a mélange every bit as mixed as Humbert Humbert’s “salad of racial genes.” One of his grandfathers was a slightly shady Turkish businessman, the other an Irish nationalist and member of the IRA—the “old” IRA, that is, which won, more or less, the War of Independence in the early 1920s, and went on through succeeding decades to fight for Irish unification, among other things, becoming in time the “new” IRA, the one we all know about.
O’Neill was born in Cork, but as a small child lived with his parents in various places abroad, including Mozambique, Turkey, and Iran, and, from the age of six, in the Netherlands, where he attended French- and English-speaking schools. Afterward he studied law at Girton College, Cambridge, and became a barrister at the English bar, and practiced law for ten years in London, before moving to New York and settling there in 1998. To say he has lived a peripatetic life is an understatement, even in our deracinated times. Hence his well-nigh obsessional search for his family roots, as chronicled in Blood-Dark Track. In that book O’Neill carried out a deep trawl through the lives and times of his Irish and Turkish grandfathers, their families, their jobs, their politics, and their strangely similar histories. It is a troubled work, as dark as the times and events that it investigates.
Netherland, too, with its strong echoes of The Great Gatsby, was concerned with deracination and the search for authenticity. Described by James Wood in The New Yorker as “one of the most…
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