Netherland (3)

Because the mood of Hans’ narrative is essentially retrospective, it has some interesting effects on flow and pacing. One reason Netherland is resistant to simplication is that the narrator’s voice meanders through space and time, knitting together disparate experiences. Like Proust, O’Neill firmly believes that the calendar of facts isn’t the same as the calendar of memories, feelings, and values. Hans’ story doesn’t follow successive chronological frames. Instead, there are abrupt shifts in grammatical tense, reflecting rapid transitions in the temporal order of events. In the space of a sentence or two, O’Neill deftly leaps from the present to the distant past, from the distant past to the near past, and back again to the eternally present now. Sometimes a flashback queues the shift in tense.

Rachel’s voice climbs to me from afar.


I actually flinch. It comes to me, this question, as a pure echo of an identical offer she voiced three years ago.

“Tea?” Rachel asked.

And with that, we’re off and running with a memory of the time when Hans first learns that his wife has a new lover—and the bitter grief and agony of this revelation. But other times a grammatical shift in tense occurs without warning.

Here’s the setup: Hans has just completed a driving test on the streets of New York. Chuck Ramkisson arrives in a friendly show of support and in a celebratory spirit to mark the occasion. Chuck needs a ride home so he steps into the car with its newly licensed driver. While narrating this past event, Hans rhetorically asks…

What was I supposed to do? Throw him out?

“Yes,” Rachel says. “That’s exactly what you should have done.”

Roughly four years separate the incident toward which the rhetorical questions are directed and his wife’s unambiguous Yes. Four years! Yet the prose effortlessly leaps temporal horizons. These and other feats of time travel, which occur frequently in Netherland, aren’t annoying or troubling in any way, because Hans’ voice is so sure, so precise, controlled, and self-disciplined.

2 Responses to Netherland (3)

  1. nicole says:

    Deft indeed. I give O’Neill a lot of credit for such success with this kind of fluidity. All the more so since I just read another book (nonfiction, which I’ll be complaining about on my blog tomorrow) that was simply awful at the same general technique. But I think it’s especially effective in Netherland as well because it subtly focuses the novel on the fluidity and weirdness of memory both for all New Yorkers after September 11 as well as for all immigrants and expats.

  2. Kevin Neilson says:

    Apropos of the fluidity and weirdness of memory, I particularly like how O’Neill uses chapter headings: he doesn’t. There are just pauses, gaps, spaces, blanks, breaks, openings, and other forms of downtime.

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