Netherland (8)

July 1, 2010

It’s a tricky thing being a person. We occupy a portion of space-time like ordinary objects. But unlike ordinary objects, we experience the world from a first-person point of view. We’re conscious, in other words; we have subjective experiences. A cricket field of freshly mown grass evokes nostalgia, dreams, feelings, hopes, emotions, longings, and memories. These experiences happen in interior spaces, away from the probing lights of other minds. Because we’re both object and subject, we unavoidably cast long shadows. We bear about us a taint of mystery and obscurity. “…[O]ur daily motions always cast a secondary shadow,” says Hans. But as we’re all singular sites of willing and striving, of perceiving, thinking, and feeling, it’s precisely this secondary shadow that’s so damn important to us. Hans calls it a profound homesickness, “one having to do with unsettlements that cannot be located in spaces of geography or history .., [with] unspeakable individual longings … concerned with horizons and potentials sighted or hallucinated.” What gives shape and direction to a person’s life are just these horizons and potentials. Hans, because he doesn’t “look beneath the surface” of things, doesn’t see people, including himself, for who they are. Enter: spiritual Babelization without allegory. O’Neill’s solution to this problem is improved vision, one that recognizes depth and obscurity, an awareness of shadows, of dreams, hopes, longings, and above all else attitudes and values. Not long before his epiphany, Hans is strolling through a park whose “shadows were otherworldly in their clearness.” This is a major turning point in the novel. For the first time, he sees Chuck not only as a brilliant orator and cricket-intoxicated man but as a ruthless gangster, to boot.  On the heels of this experience, Hans goes on a business trip to Arizona and, in between meetings, steals away to the desert where he, soon afterwards, finally sees his shadow, too. He sees himself for who he is, as a man with definite hopes and dreams, with an unspeakable longing for his family, especially his son Jake. “…I underwent a swerve in orientation—as though I’d been affected by the abrupt consensus of movement that redirects flocking birds. I decided to move back to London.” In that moment, a man and his shadow touch. A unity of purpose is achieved. And Hans
escapes passivity.

Netherland (7)

June 30, 2010

Consciousness is a light (indeed, the most important light) and language and mass media are lights, too: “Your tribe has come to light,” Rachel tells Hans, as they watch the evening news. But language isn’t always a vehicle for truth, history, and clear meaning. Its powers of obfuscation are great. Similar considerations apply to awareness, as well. Given the aspectual nature of consciousness, we cannot be aware of things under all possible aspects at one time, including the very thing we fancy we know best: ourselves. Very often, we’re only aware of the gleaming surfaces of people, places,
and things.

Playing in the garden one day with his son, Hans shows Jake how to use a shovel.

When I dug up the topsoil, I was taken aback: countless squirming creatures ate and moved and multiplied underfoot. The very ground we stood on was revealed as a kind of ocean, crowded and immeasurable and without light.

Or when Hans tries to hail a cab.

As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

Kierkegaard famously defines selfhood “as a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation
relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.” Well, let’s borrow the bits of this definition that are clear and say that Hans is a relation that relates to Chuck Ramkisson, to his wife Rachel, and to himself. But he’s only aware of gleaming surfaces, not gray depths; only aware of shining exteriors, not foul mechanical darkness.

Hans is aware that Chuck is a portly Trinidadian who is a charismatic entrepreneur and evangelical prophet of cricket. But he isn’t aware of Chuck’s shady, gangster dealings in the nether lands of New York. Hans is aware that his wife Rachel has a knack for legal argument plus a weakness for food and cinema. But he isn’t aware of Rachel’s “unconsidered factors” and “clandestine pre-existent injuries” in the nether regions of her soul. Chuck knows he’s a smart man who can make a good educated guess at the oil production of an American-
occupied Iraq…

But I found myself unable to contribute to conversations about the value of international law … or the constitutional rights of imprisoned enemies … or the merits of vaccinating the American masses against small pox … or the menace of the neo-conservative cabal in the Bush Administration… In this ever-shifting … conversation, my orientation was poor.

“I was a political-ethical idiot,” he continues.

Hans is an idiot not because he’s stupid but because it’s not clear to him what his dreams, hopes, and aspirations are, what his regrets, feelings, and worries are. Above all, Hans is an idiot because it’s not clear to him what his attitudes and values are. How do you prioritize objective facts if you don’t have subjective preferences? How do you make evaluations, appraisals, and discriminations if you don’t know what’s dear to you, what you care about, and what you’re willing to struggle and fight for? You don’t.

Value-blindness ensures that.

Netherland (6)

June 28, 2010

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…

Netherland (5)

June 26, 2010

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.


Netherland (4)

June 24, 2010

Perhaps it’s because I’m a seven-year old child of divorce. Or maybe it’s because I’m a recent dad who, like Reverend Ames in Gilead, comes to parenthood later in life than most men. Or maybe it’s because the prose is so damn exquisite that the only aesthetically culpable reaction is to linger over certain passages and share them with others, in the hope that their poignancy burns an after-image in memory’s blinking eye. A worthwhile
hope, that.

Sometimes I confused the cries of the sirens with my sons night-time cries. I would leap out of bed and go to his bedroom and helplessly kiss him, even though my rough face sometimes woke him and I’d have to stay with him and rub his tiny rigid back until he fell asleep once more.

What father hasn’t worried over and lightly touched his son’s back as if reading or imparting a Braille message? Then there’s this whiskey-scented prelude to a papa’s waltz…

I was a little drunk; I couldn’t resist brushing my lips against his flushed cheeks. How hot his two-year old skin was! How lovely his eyelids!

In a train, on the way to work, Hans is softly singing a Dutch lullaby to himself, thinking tenderly of his son.

I hummed this nonsense about pigs and beans and cows and clover to my faraway son, tapping my knee against the underside of the lowered tray as I imagined his delighted weight one my thigh… Unseen on this earth, I alighted at Albany-Rensselaer with tears in my eyes and went to my meeting.

There are several other father-son passages I’d like to share. But you’ll just have to chase them down yourself. 

Time to play with my boy!