Netherland (5)

I marvel at the skill of prose fiction writers who effortlessly describe complex scenes. Even life’s most mundane happenings seem impossibly complex to me. Imagine, you’re in line at Starbucks readying to buy a caramel macchiato or whatever your poison is. Now describe the scene. Holy smokes, just pretending to take this exercise seriously makes my palms sweat. Where do I start? The drone of the chugging heater. Maybe the nasal bite of roasting Komodo Dragon. Or else the little boy who’s pointing at his mom’s feet—wearing as she is socks (because it’s cold) and flip-flops (because it’s California)—and squealing with delight at the strange figure her feet cut, the band scrunching her socks between her toes, “Mommy, mommy who have a camel toe!” God bless him. There’s strawberry red, then there’s flushed my-son-has-just-screamed-about-my-camel-toe red. Very different colors, these two are. Anyhow. Here’s O’Neill at work in Netherland, describing, not a scene at Starbucks, but one at the DMV
in New York.

An enormous counter ran around three quarters of the office like a fortification, and behind it, visible between crenellations made by partitions and computer terminals, were DMV employees. Two of them, women in their thirties, screamed with laughter by a photocopying machine; but as soon as they reached their positions at the counter they wore faces of sullen hostility. One could understand why, for assembled before them was a perpetually reinforced enemy, its troops massing relentlessly on the hard pewlike benches.

How many qualities and objects to situate! How many relations to express! How many nuances to capture! Do you know how long it would take a hack to write a sentence like this? Never, that’s how long. Know how long it would take a journeyman to write it? About six months. As for the master, I’m waiting to hear back from him, but I wager a pretty penny it took O’Neill one minute. Kudos to him, too, for perfectly using my favorite GRE-word: crenellations. Which incidentally occurs twice in the novel, in case you’re wondering.

Here’s another passage.

As the morning lightened, the shadows of the purple and bronze trees became more distinct on the water. The brown river, now very still, was glossed in places, as if immense silver tires had skidded there.

Speechless.

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2 Responses to Netherland (5)

  1. Kerry says:

    Hilarious little bit about the mommy with camel toe.

    I have enjoyed this series on Netherland, a book I enjoyed. I particularly loved your part 4 observation regarding the assurance with which O’Neill switches time frames and how, far from disorienting, he always manages to make it seem effortless and entirely natural.

    Thanks for this nice analysis and opportunity to revisit my own memories of the well-crafted and touching book.

  2. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi Kerry, thanks for dropping by. Ay, the camel toe. And I thought Starbucks could only provide generic, cookie-cutter experiences. Netherland is nudging its way on to my list of top-20, all-time favorite novels. In Netherland, O’Neill has a knack for execution, execution, execution – putting him in a different class from D. Mitchell, whom I greatly admire, but whose most recent effort in The Thousands Autumns of J. de Z. suffers from some tactical blemishes, or so it seems to me at the moment, a hundred pages in. Anyhow, I love Netherland.

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