Joseph O'Neill, 2008
In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, Hans—a banker originally from the Netherlands—finds himself marooned among the strange occupants of the Chelsea Hotel after his English wife and son return to London. Alone and untethered, feeling lost in the country he had come to regard as home, Hans stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country.
Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure who is part idealist and part operator, introduces Hans to an “other” New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality. Hans is alternately seduced and instructed by Chuck’s particular brand of naivete and chutzpah—by his ability to a hold fast to a sense of American and human possibility in which Hans has come to lose faith.
Netherland gives us both a flawlessly drawn picture of a little-known New York and a story of much larger, and brilliantly achieved ambition: the grand strangeness and fading promise of 21st century America from an outsider’s vantage point, and the complicated relationship between the American dream and the particular dreamers. Most immediately, though, it is the story of one man—of a marriage foundering and recuperating in its mystery and ordinariness, of the shallows and depths of male friendship, of mourning and memory. Joseph O’Neill’s prose, in its conscientiousness and beauty, involves us utterly in the struggle for meaning that governs any single life. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Cork, Ireland
• Raised—primarily in Holland
• Awards—PEN/Faulkner Award
• Education—LL. B., Cambridge University
• Currently—New York, New York, USA
Joseph O'Neill is an Irish novelist and non-fiction writer. His 2008 novel Netherland was awarded the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and The Dog, published in 2014, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
O'Neill was born in Cork Ireland, in 1964. He is of half-Irish and half-Assyrian (his mother's family belonged to the Syrian Catholic Church in Mersin) ancestry. His parents moved around much in O'Neill's youth: he spent time in Mozambique as a toddler and in Turkey until the age of four, and he also lived in Iran. From the age of six, O'Neill lived in The Netherlands, where he attended the Lycee francais de La Haye and the British School in the Netherlands.
He read law at Girton College, Cambridge, preferring it over English because "literature was too precious" and he wanted it to remain a hobby. O'Neill started off his literary career in poetry but had turned away from it by the age of 24. After a year off to write his first novel, O'Neill became a barrister at the English Bar, where he practiced for ten years at a barristers chambers in the Temple, principally in the field of business law. Since 1998 he has lived in New York City. He teaches at Bard College.
O'Neill is the author of four novels, including This Is the Life (1991), The Breezes (1996), Netherland (2008), and The Dog (2014).
His 2008 Netherland was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, where it was called "the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we've yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell." It was also included in the New York Times list of the 10 Best Books of 2008.
His fourth novel The Dog, published in 2014, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
In addition to fiction, he is also the author of a non-fiction book, Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002 and a book of the year for the Economist and the Irish Times.
Additionally, O'Neill writes literary and cultural criticism, most regularly for the Atlantic Monthly. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/16/2014.)
Joseph O'Neill's stunning new novel, Netherland, provides a resonant meditation on the American Dream…[he] does a magical job of conjuring up the many New Yorks Hans gets to know. He captures the city's myriad moods, its anomalous neighborhoods jostling up against one another, its cacophony and stillness, its strivers, seekers, scam artists and scoundrels.... Most memorably, he gives us New York as a place where the unlikeliest of people can become friends and change one another's lives, a place where immigrants like Chuck can nurture—and potentially lose—their dreams, and where others like Hans can find the promise of renewal.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
Here's what Netherland surely is: the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we've yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell. On a micro level, it's about a couple and their young son living in Lower Manhattan when the planes hit, and about the event's rippling emotional aftermath in their lives. On a macro level, it's about nearly everything: family, politics, identity. I devoured it in three thirsty gulps, gulps that satisfied a craving I didn't know I had.... [O'Neill] seems incapable of composing a boring sentence or thinking an uninteresting thought.
Dwight Garner - New York Times Book Review
Netherland doesn't turn on plot. In both form and content, it questions the idea that a life can be told as a coherent story. It is organized not chronologically but as a series of memories linked by associations…At times, the novel's exacting descriptions felt less like a man's memory than a tour of his consciousness, and I wondered why a particular scene merited such detail, but Hans is a person who has lost his bearings after a shock and his myriad perceptions bear the stamp of this estrangement. Always sensitive and intelligent, Netherland tells the fragmented story of a man in exile—from home, family and, most poignantly, from himself.
Siri Hustvedt - Washington Post
Hans van den Broek, the main character in this ruminative third novel (and fourth book) by Irish/Turkish/English author O'Neill (Blood-Dark Track), is a Dutch-transplanted Londoner working in New York City at the start of the 21st century. Though a successful equities analyst, Hans is given more to reverie than to action. When his wife announces she is taking their young son back to London, Hans, stunned, remains in New York. He gets drawn into a friendship of sorts with Trinidadian entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams of making cricket a great American sport, and who-Hans hears later-is eventually found dead in a canal. Hans's meandering, somewhat old-fashioned narrative takes a patient reader in and out of past and present: from his cricket-playing, fatherless childhood through his distant relationship with his mother, rocky marriage, and his own fatherhood, gradually revealing the appeal of the slowly unfolding game of cricket and fast-talking Chuck Ramkissoon to a man in his early thirties finding his way in a post-9/11 world. Recommended for literary fiction collections.
Laurie A. Cavanaugh - Library Journal
Novelist and memoirist O'Neill (Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, 2001, etc.), born in Ireland and raised in Holland, goes for broke in this challenging novel set largely in post-9/11 New York City. Dutch banker Hans, who narrates the story from the perspective of 2006, and his British wife Rachel, a lawyer, get more than they bargain for when they transfer their jobs from London to Manhattan for an American experience. After the World Trade Center bombing, they move out of their Tribeca loft into the Hotel Chelsea, and soon Rachel decamps with their baby son back to London. Hans visits regularly but the marriage flounders. Distraught and lonely, he joins a Cricket league made up mostly of Asian and Caribbean immigrants. Soon he (along with the reader) falls under the sway of Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian umpire. Chuck is a charming entrepreneur who has opened a kosher sushi restaurant; an inspiringly patriotic immigrant with plans to save America with Cricket; and a petty gangster running a numbers game. A classic charismatic rogue, Chuck leads Hans on a "Heart of Darkness" tour of New York's immigrant underbelly. As Hans begins to realize that Chuck might be a dangerous friend to have, Hans and Rachel's marriage disintegrates. At Chuck's recommendation, Hans moves back to England to win her back. Throughout, O'Neill plays with the nature of time and memory: Hans's Dutch childhood with his single mother, for example, still haunts him in New York. The shifting truths of who Chuck has been, who Hans's mother was, who Hans and Rachel are to each other, depend on what O'Neill calls "temporal undercurrents." This love story about a friendship, a place and a marriage is not easy to read, but it's even harder to stop thinking about.
1. Describe the structure of Netherland. Why does the author open with Hans moving to New York City and then quickly jump into the future with Chuck's death and then jump back? Do you think these flashbacks and foward leaps relate to the narrative arc of the story? Is this simply how we tell stories? When you tell a story do you tell it chronologically? Why?
2. Childhood often slips into the story—that of both Hans and Chuck. Early on in the novel, Hans mentions that he doesn't connect to himself as a child ("I, however, seem given to self-estrangement"), then proceeds to produce numerous memories of his childhood and of his mother. How is this reconnecting with his heritage and his past important to the story? How is Chuck often the catalyst for these memories?
3. Chuck is more connected to his heritage than Hans. He socializes with others from the West Indies; he's marriees to a woman from his birth country, et cetera. How do flashbacks to his childhood differ from Hans's and how do they affect the novel as a whole?
4. How does nostalgis play into Netherland? Who is nostalgic and for what? Why does O'Neill open the novel with someone being nostalgic for New York City?
5. Discuss the title. What does "netherland" mean and what do you think it refers to?
6. Chuck's motto is "Think fantastic." How does this both help and hinder him? Can you create an appropriate motto for Hans? How about for yourself?
7. What does the United States represent for Hans and Chuck? How are their relationships with their new country similar, and also polar opposites?
8. How are both Han's and Chuck's experiences typical of American dream of immigrant stories? Compare Netherland to other stories of the immigrant experience (The Joy Luck Club, The House on Mango Street, House of Sand and Fog) or to what you imagine immigrating to a new country to be like.
9. Is the American Dream the same after 9/11? How are Americans both united and divided after 9/11? How is the world of Netherland particular to the United States after 9/11?
10. Describe the narrator's voice. Do you trust and like Hans as a narrator? Do you sympatize with him and understand his motives? Do you identify with him?
11. Describe the Chelsea Hotel when Hans lives. How is it a character in the novel? How are the various inhabitants and the oddness of the place appealing and comforting to Hans?
12. What is Han's relationship with his mother? How does the relationship continue to affect him after his mother's death? How does it affect his being a father?
13. Discuss the theme of male friendship in the novel and its connection to sports. Early in the novel, Hans describes playing cricket with Chuck: "The rest of our lives—jobs, children, wives, worries—peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit." While Hans's friendship with Chuck goes beyond cricket, the sport is what initially brings the two men together. Why do you think cricket is so important to Hans? How does his friendship with Chuck change him?
14. Netherland is also the story of a marriage. Why is Hans and Rachel's marriage falling apart? What brings them together again in the end?
15. Discuss the theme of betrayal and forgiveness in Netherland. How do both Rachel and Hans betray eachother and why? What about Chuck? Do the characters ever lead themselves astray and betray themselves. Does America betray both Chuck and Hans in the end?
(Questions issued by publishers.)
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