“Netherland” is one of those books that sits in tall stacks on the “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” table at Borders or Barnes & Noble, and it’s right next to one of those other books that you’ve wanted for awhile: “Into the Wild,” perhaps, or “Empire Falls,” or even “Persepolis.” It’s got a striking cover, filled with impressive blurbs and awards and best-seller accolades, and so you get the impression that you should have read this by now, that it’s an important book, that you better get it, too, while it’s on the sale table!
And with blurbs that told me that, in my hands, I was holding onto the 21st-century Great Gatsby, I was pretty excited to not just purchase “Netherland,” but to actually sit down and read the thing. Maybe in one frenzied weekend. Maybe it would be as absorbing and all-consuming as “Middlesex” or “White Teeth,” one of those rich social novels whose prose pours over you like thick syrup over pancakes. Mmmm.
But “Netherland” felt like an Oscar Bait movie, one of those films released around December/ January that features a big star in an unusual role and garners lots of buzz, but then you see it and the movie just feels forced and soulless. From the very opening sentence, “Netherland” tries to set itself up as a deep and retrospective first-person story about immigration, love, community, sub-cultures, and even (of course!) murder. But in the end, it really winds up as a bland story about people who love the game of cricket.
No, scratch that. It’s about one man who loves cricket, and one who is fascinated by the man who loves cricket.
The protagonist is a dull Dutchman living in New York and dealing with his separation from his wife, and we are supposed to feel a sort of emotional vacancy because he is dealing with 9/11, but the emotional vacancy is undone by the character’s articulate nature. In other words, we don’t feel the weight of emotion; we only feel that he seems like a bit of a prick. Difficult. Snobby. European, looking down on various American cultural traits.
There’s an undercurrent of a love story here, but it never really takes center stage until the final 30 pages or so, and because I never wound up caring for either the narrator or his wife, it just felt like one of those tacked-on scenes at the end of an Oscar Bait movie that’s supposed to make me feel like the entire experience was worthwhile. Oh my God, it was all leading to this! Etc. But again, it just felt forced, insincere.
No doubt Joseph O’Neill is a terrific writer, but it feels like “Netherland” is a short story about cricket players in New York…and he simply expanded it into a novel, added one outer layer about a broken marriage, then another outer layer about a murder, just to try to spice up a pretty thin conflict at the book’s core, and in the end it winds up being the type of book about which many readers will say, “Oh that was beautiful,” but they don’t really mean it. They’re only repeating the blurbs from the cover because they think they should like “Netherland.” In five months, though, when someone asks them about the book, they’ll probably have forgotten what it was about (except maybe a vague recollection of cricket), forgotten the character and his struggle, forgotten even the writing quality. And listen, I’m wrong about a lot of things, but about this one fact I am not wrong: if a book is fantastic, you will not forget it