By page five of Netherland, even dimwitted readers will notice that Chuck Ramkisson is a corpse floating in the Gowanus Canal. And moderately attentive ones will notice that Hans’ marriage to Rachel is presently intact. So before the story even gets going, we know that one of two towers in the
skyline of Hans’ life still stands. Chuck is dead; his marriage, preserved.
Netherland is not a story about how these outcomes come to pass, although we learn something about their history. Rather, it’s a story about the inner journey of a man who travels from a condition of value-blindness to a state of fuller awareness, with the result that he, Hans, escapes passivity and makes one (count it, one) exceedingly important decision, from which everything else follows, from the renunion with his family to the origin of the story we’ve just now had the good fortune to read.
The symbolic structure of Netherland consists of imagery of light and shadow, as well as correlative distinctions like appearance/obscurity, surface/depth, visible/invisible, and so on. Late in 2003, before his epiphany, Hans is at a party, when the lights suddenly go out, a city-wide blackout. Fear ripples through the party. A voluble man familiar with the history of artificial light informs Hans…
[T]hat throughout human time light has been associated with optimism and progress, and with good reason. Nightfall … marks the emergence of an untwoard alternative world, a world of horrors and delights whose existence reveals all to troublingly the correspondence between luminance and codes of human behavior….
“Turn off the lights, people turn into wolves,” the man continues.
Although imagery of light and darkness is already well established in the novel by this point, O’Neill puts us on notice that he doesn’t subscribe to this simplisitic view, for the blackout is greeted by an outbreak of civic responsibility. So a Manichean he is not. His view is a lot more nuanced than that. O’Neill embraces an attitude of tragic-serious optimism, whereby he recognizes that light always casts a shadow, even at high noon.
But more on that in the final two posts…