For all the plot details I shared with you in the previous post, amazingly, I told you very little about the story. The unifying device—indeed, the animating impulse—of Netherland isn’t plot. It’s voice. One of the great things about O’Neill’s style is that the first-person point of view allows him to establish a remarkable intimacy with his readers. His narrator talks to us. He ruminates about his past. In a calm, self-reflective, and descriptively precise voice, he puzzles over his life, excavates sensations and memories, and plumbs the meaning of things—and then organizes and arranges them into a seamless narrative mosaic. Through the narrator’s sustaining voice, we have the opportunity to witness the creation of a story and the discovery of a self who emerges from a personal haze as he relates his story.
Meet Johannus Franciscus Hendrikus van den Broek.
(Hans for short, mercifully.)
Hans is an equities analyst and Dutch immigrant who moves with his wife Rachel to New York in 1998. He’s friendly but not chummy, smart but not brilliant. But mostly Hans is a lost and confused soul. He suffers from a double disorientation. Like most New Yorkers in Lower Manhattan and many Americans elsewhere, Hans’ background assumptions, once casually taken for granted, are profoundly shaken by the attacks of 9/11. The ordinary scheme of things shifts—and with it the meaning of common everyday events. A shrill siren or a loud construction noise or a low-flying airplane mean something different now after the attacks than they did before.
[I]n the hush of the small hours, a goods truck smashing into a pothole sounded like an explosion, and the fantastic howl of a passing motorbike once caused Rachel to vomit with terror.
In addition to having his background assumptions razed, a creeping distance has entered his marriage, with the result that Hans has no physical contact and no emotional intimacy with his wife. Rachel “withheld from me all kisses on the mouth” for two years. In the wake of their separation, Hans is a man with no friends, no pastimes, and no real sense of who he is, what he should value, and how he should live. Paralyzed, Hans thrashes about in a murky, existential taint, unable to get his bearings. Later, in a different context, when he blurts out…
“A story,” I said suddenly. “Yes. That’s what I need.”
Hans is spot on, as unprovoked acknowledgements often are. Hans is a man in search of a narrative.