The essential facts of Netherland are these: In 1998, Hans and his wife Rachel immigrate to the Tribeca neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, New York. Their son Jake is born in September 1999. Hans’ mother dies in 2000. On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center is attacked. Interestingly, this episode, which is one of the principal events of the story, isn’t directly represented. By evoking an “unfathomable and catastrophic atmosphere,” O’Neill illuminates it only peripherally, through its lingering, haunting effects. Immediately after 9/11, Hans, Rachel, and their only son Jake temporarily, it is hoped, shutter their loft in Tribeca and move to the Chelsea Hotel. Later that year, Rachel separates from Hans and moves back to London with Jake. Hans meets Chuck Ramkisson in 2002 on the cricket field. In November 2003, Hans decides to return to England to be near his son. One year later, in 2004, Rachel moves in with her lover, Martin Casey, but gets jilted by him a few months later. Hans and Rachel reconcile and buy a house together in Highbury in September 2005, four years after the catastrophic events of 9/11. Hans learns about Chuck’s death in 2006.
If you think you know, on the basis of this plot summary, something important about the book, you’re largely mistaken. The significance of Netherland occurs at a depth well beneath the architecture of its action and timeline. In the next several posts, I hope to illuminate aspects of the novel that strike me as remarkable, like voice, time-shifting, quality of prose, O’Neill’s tragic-serious but ultimately optimistic view of life, and the play of light/shadow, appearance/obscurity, visible/invisible, and other metaphysically tantalizing contrasts in Netherland.
At least that’s the plan.