The Great New York Novel
Arts & Entertainment
by Peter Terzian , 05/22/2009
Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland was praised by many critics as a lyrical portrait of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. It recently received the ultimate stamp of approval, however, when President Barack Obama told the New York Times Magazine that he had been spending his evenings reading the book. Netherland is narrated by Hans van den Broek, a Dutch financial analyst living in New York who, after separating from his wife and son, takes solace in his love of cricket. Born in Ireland and raised in the Netherlands, O'Neill practiced law in London before moving to the United States in 1998. A long-standing member of the Staten Island Cricket Club, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and their three sons. We spoke to O'Neill a few days after Netherland, published earlier this month in paperback by Vintage Contemporaries, was awarded the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
As far as I can remember, this is the first time I've heard of a president reading literary fiction.
That's incredible, isn't it? Politics is such a relentlessly pragmatic, outcome-oriented occupation, and to read a literary novel doesn't necessarily yield votes or insights that are easily translated to votes. We have a rather special guy in the White House at the moment.
You and your family live in the partly residential Chelsea Hotel, as do your characters, Hans and his family. What's it like?
It's an authentic community. The people know each other, and they either like each other or they don't, but they have very human dealings with each other. It's kind of wonderful. We've made lots of good friends here. It's a very nice place to bring up children.
By the end of Netherland, your main characters have relocated to London. Do you ever consider moving back there?
For years I was homesick for it. A lot of my friends live there, and I had spent the early years of my adult life there. But I'm very happy here. New York is an extremely welcoming city. Most people who are here have expatriated from California or the Midwest or from other parts of the world, and that leads to a very healthy immediacy in the way people deal with each other.
How has New York changed since you completed Netherland?
I think it's only with Obama that the City has started to return to itself. The last eight years made very little sense to New Yorkers. The Iraq war and the other big decisions made by the Bush administration really had a depressing effect on New York City and its people, almost more than 9/11. New York stands for complexity and innovation and a certain kind of fearlessness about the world. "The more the merrier" is basically what happens in New York.
Have you found that Netherland resonates with people living outside of New York?
It's hard for me to tell. I know that the book is on home territory in New York City. It's a huge compliment to me that New Yorkers who know the City extremely well, and know this particular period of time extremely well, feel that their sense of the City is expanded by this novel. It tells them something they didn't know about their own city, even though I've only been here for a few years. But I think that's possibly it—I think your sense of a place is at its sharpest when you arrive there.
Are there great New York novels that you particularly love?
Growing up I loved Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, and Humboldt's Gift, by Saul Bellow, and it's only by revisiting these books since I've been in New York that I realize how they are wonderful New York City novels. But I feel that there's a sort of category error made if you say, "This is a New York City novel," because it's just a bunch of buildings in the end. It's quite hard for a city to be the subject of a novel, unless you're doing something like Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which is a wonderful book and which was written about Venice, actually. I think if you wanted to read about New York you could do far worse than read Invisible Cities.
How would you spend your ideal New York day off?
I would play cricket for a few hours in Marine Park. I'd like to eat some roti on Flatbush Avenue on the way back, and then maybe in the evening I would find a rooftop somewhere and have some drinks with some friends. This summer I'm certainly proposing to go to the High Line with my children.
New York City sites featured in Netherland:
Walker Park (Staten Island)
The home field of O'Neill's cricket team, the Staten Island Cricket Club, and the team of Hans van den Broek, O'Neill's fictional protagonist.
Chelsea Hotel (Manhattan)
The legendary hotel no longer accepts new long-term residents, but historical occupants have included Mark Twain, Janis Joplin, Edie Sedgwick and Jack Kerouac.
Floyd Bennett Field (Brooklyn)
The site of New York City's first municipal airport is also the spot where Netherland's Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian businessman, dreams of building a cricket stadium.
Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church (Brooklyn)
A key location in Netherland, this church was built in 1633; its cemetery is the burial site of some of the region's early Dutch settlers.
Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn)
In Netherland, Hans and Chuck visit the historic burial ground, home of a flock of wild parrots.