The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Sometimes, when it comes to a "serious" book about New York, it's very difficult to tell by reading America's more prominent book reviewers whether the book is actually any good. Such reviewing luminaries as the NEW YORK TIMES and NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and the NEW YORKER (am I sensing a theme?) are based in New York, of course, and a very significant percentage of major reviewers also have chosen to live there--for obvious reasons. (It's still a hell of a book town, and used to be the center of the publishing universe.) So I've had many experiences of reading or buying a book with a New York theme that was rapturously reviewed in several publications, only to find that the book was... meh. THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN. LUSH LIFE. Even GOTHAM. Native New Yorkers assume that their city is the most important and interesting place on earth, of course, and people who choose to move to NYC frequently do so because they believe the same thing--or they come to believe it after living there for a while. So I shouldn't be surprised if reviews of New York books get a 20% reviewer's premium. (I need to remember this if and when I write a novel.)

Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND came in at the top of a lot of "Best Books of the Year" lists last year, and I finally got around to reading it; or, more accurately, listening to it. (I got it off Audible (thanks Dad)). It quickly got a reputation as the great 9/11 novel, even though 9/11 happens off camera and it's really about the emotional resonances of living in post-9/11 New York. It's kind of a dual story: it's narrated by a Dutch banker (or, I suppose, a 'commodities analyst') whose English wife has decided to leave him and return to London after 9/11, clearly but never explicitly identified as the cause for her departure. Hans van den Broek, the banker, is cricket-mad, and falls in with the most interesting character in the novel, a Trinidadian hustler named Chuck Ramkissoon, who is wheeling and dealing to create a top-level cricket facility in south Brooklyn. The novel is told in a series of flashbacks from the time that van den Broek learns of the discovery of his friend Ramkissoon's body in the Gowanus Canal.

I'm not going to blame my feeling that the book was disjointed and wandering entirely on O'Neill. I did listen to it, and not only does my mind wander at times when listening but I did fall asleep--repeatedly--throughout the book. (Being read to has that effect on me.) So I might have missed some things. But I'm pretty sure that the book jumped through time constantly, which is not necessarily a fault, but van den Broek was such a boring character, such I guy that I didn't particularly care about, that the combination was bad. I felt that O'Neill really wanted to write Ramkissoon's story but felt the obligation to stick with the "marriage affected by 9/11" story. I can see why the New York critics loved it, though; it does have a magnificent feel for what they would probably call the "unknown" New York--the New York of immigrants in the outer boroughs, and the encounter of one immigrant (privileged van den Broek) with the more traditional stratum of immigrants always present in the city.

Like I said, New York critics loved the book, and it has its virtues. O'Neill knows the city and has exhumed, or exposed, the cricket scene there, which is quite original. He's also a very impressive stylist. But scanning some non-American reviews (such as this one from the GUARDIAN) I see that not everyone is as rapturous about this novel as the NEW YORKER, NEW YORK TIMES, etc. To wit:
Perhaps stories of striving immigrants and America's ambiguous promise speak to New York reviewers on frequencies inaudible to outsiders.

That's putting it charitably.


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