Spoiler alert!

Impressions after 19 pages are entirely negative. But I'm admittedly quick to dislike things, and I hope the book improves and also that you'll all steer me right.


-- the narrator is to this point dull, even dumb. The scene with the gun is an easy example, but his melodramatic pauses during conversations (some version of "I don't immediately answer" happens five times in three pages) are forced and annoying. Maybe he's a well-informed idiot like many Nabokov characters, which I'm hoping for, but so far the portrayal seems sincere, lacking irony. I'm worried.

-- the 'hook' is melodramatic . . . but at least it's dramatic. There's not much tension anywhere else, sadly: I'm waiting to see what happens with the hook: that's it: after 19 pages. No character development, either. Rachel is a complete blank. And I've discussed my feelings about the narrator.

-- the research about cricket is shoe-horned in and the speech about the civility of cricket rings false (somewhat the giving of the speech, but absolutely the reception. No one snickers?). ((Edit: I looked again and people do laugh. I can't tell if they're laughing 'with' or 'against' him, though. Clarity, Joe.))

-- the structure is clunky without any yield that I can see (a quick brief flashback within the larger flashback seems entirely unnecessary).

--the prose has enough vague evocations and lapses that I distrust the author. Two examples:

1. " . . . I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath." (That just makes me cringe -- not only 'taint,' but the vagueness is so blah. We're supposed to be interested in a guy who talks like this? Ugh.)

2. And this exchange:

"Oh," I say, "I'm sure I've told you about him. A cricket guy I used to know. A guy from Brooklyn."
She repeats after me, "Chuck Ramkissoon?"

(Um . . . maybe I need to look up 'repeat'?)

Yeah, I'm being nitpicky but just for spiteful fun. I'll keep going with the novel. Disagreement and revelations about my stupidity/impatience are entirely welcome and even hoped for.


cfp said...

I don't know. I'm about 25 pages in and even with your nitpicking in the back of my head I'm quite enjoying it. For me, there's a quality to the tone that's trumping whatever sloppiness you're identifying. There's probably an important lesson in there somewhere.

dunkeys said...

I think the tone is bugging me more than anything, and then I go into extra-critical mode ("prove to myself I'm right," that type of nonsense). He's a very passive narrator, which slows things . . . he's not passive-aggressive, not feisty, just blank -- which could work, but his blankness isn't in response to anything, which is frustrating me. We simply have a boring tour guide.

I'm around 60 or so and still signs of sloppiness (50: "I ran into Chuck again by accident," followed by 5 pages and then we're surprised when Chuck appears! Only we're not). More researchy areas, too. It's a big of a mish-mash of a novel: no tension (really: there's ZERO tension in this novel) and still some very vague characters . . . he's getting by on 'local color,' which kills me.

But back to that tone: it's patient and fact-driven. So we sense something important has to happen (right?) and get to see strange parts of NYC along the way. Not my taste, but I can see the appeal.

Side-note: there's a snippet from the NYTBR on the back that's about the stupidest thing I've ever seen in a review. I can't believe they included it. Thanks, Dwight Garner.

cfp said...

"...his blankness isn't in response to anything"

How about 9/11? How about the difficulties with his family?

I see the blankness as assured and presumably essential to wherever this story goes. It's certainly being brought to our attention in a way that suggests intention. It's elaborated on in the first cricket scene and again in the confrontation with his wife.

Depressed, shell-shocked narrators aren't always easy to read or to write well. By definition, they're frustrating, perhaps hollow, and maybe scattered and confused. But in part, at least, what you're citing as authorial failure I'm reading as deft characterization and tone.

kclou said...

It's true in just about any novel, but especially pronounced in this one, that you can only go as far as the narrative voice lets you. Tonally, this narrator doesn't bother me. He's formal, fussy, overly self-critical, passive (yes), but these are believable qualities in a person, particularly one inclined to let the action come to him. Now, if you rely on coincidence to keep that action coming, that's a problem, but I don't think O'Neill is especially guilty of this crime. The stuff about New York and cricket is indulgent--at its worst, a bit precious--but also mostly interesting.I don't think he's dull or dumb. Maybe naive, but I don't see that as a problem. I admire the way O'Neill moves from scene to scene through meditative writing; he seems uncommonly uncommitted to traditional scene development. It actually reminds me a bit of Denis Johnson, which is insane because their styles couldn't be more different. Random observation: I've lived in NYC two years now, and we have really different impressions of the city. His glasses are a lot rosier than mine, maybe too rosy. It sometimes seems insincere.

Now two things I don't like: 1) the wife is unlikeable to the point where it's hard for me to care about his love for her, and 2) despite O'Neill's efforts, Chuck collapses into caricature at times.

dunkeys said...

Quick quibble: if the narrator's numbness is in response to 9/11, it's barely *in* the novel and O'Neill is relying on vague fill-in-the-blank pressures rather than any he's providing in the text. I don't mean he ought to have written that day -- just that its presence should be felt more often. It isn't. (And his numbness can't be in response to his absent family: she leaves him *because* he's blank. This guy would rather spend five pages talking about eating random local food than thinking about his absent son . . . in retrospect!).

I think we're talking about taste here -- I don't think there's too much coincidence, and I also find the narrator entirely believable. I just don't like *listening* to him as his combo of calmness, passivity, and (implied) shell-shock is boring to me mainly because it isn't counterbalanced by either A) good writing or B) an interesting narrative. I do think this would be much more interesting in 3rd-person: I'd much rather watch a passive blank character than listen to one tell a story. "Big Two-Hearted River", a similar POV character, comes to mind as an excellent example. Q: How awful would that story be in first-person? A: Netherland.

And I'm no hopped up texting dance-dance kid in need of murder and metagames. I can very much do slow: I read Nabokov's Glory last month in which basically nothing happened. It's stunning. I think The Savage Detectives -- especially the long middle section -- easily outdoes the suspense of 2666. Sebald is fantastic. But these people are classical composers. O'Neill is like Phil Collins writing "Another Day in Paradise."

(I don't really mean that, but I wanted to write it all the same.)

dunkeys said...

Gosh, I'm absurdly loading my comments: "I don't like the novel because there's no tension and it's not well written, but hey, if you like it, good for you." My bad.

Better phrased: the tensions (of voice, of character, of style, of plot) aren't for me so far. I'm sure the book is going somewhere, probably somewhere interesting, as it's certainly written with confidence. I'm actually trying to like it, too -- but am finding myself trying to make these comments more convincing, which is absurdly reductive. So I'll shut up for a hundred pages or so.

cfp said...

Of course I see the problem with a sentence like "I ran into Chuck again by accident." But if I'm able to ignore it I understand that as a favor on behalf of my own enjoyment. Whatever badge I used to award myself for noticing isn't as shiny as it once seemed.

In a first person narration, the persuasiveness of the voice is my only concern. People talk that way, redundantly. We have this weird standard sometimes in which a first-person narrator must speak like an English major or else be a mild sort of grotesque, whether in dialect or whatever, the exaggeration in his voice signaled with a sort of acrobatic desperation. Lost in this arbitrary standard is the wide middle of actual speech that's as worthy of artmaking as anything else. But I think so many writers avoid it for fear of this sort of criticism, that the incorrect speech of their characters will be counted against the author somehow. What a shame.

So I'm not going to pretend to know whether a line like that is sloppy or intentional. I'm just going to reject the question entirely.

What's more interesting to me is the meta-question: why are you so intent on these flaws of this book when I am not? Where have our experiences diverged? We can chalk it up to the great unquantifiable, taste. That's not unfair.

But for me, less and less do I try to intellectualize my reading experience as it unfolds. I can't pretend that this is an entirely conscientious process, but it is a shift away from, and likely a reaction to, years of workshopping and critical writings. I think when I read a book for pleasure, I aim to unburden myself of that parlor game of "how and why could this be better" or, more fun but still disruptive, "how or why is this so great." I've logged my hours there. I think, as a writer, I have as full a sense of what works and what doesn't as I need to conscientiously cultivate (though of course, we learn always, in everything. I just don't feel compelled to do it so deliberately, all the time anymore). What I miss is the innocent, feverish, and entirely uncritical reading of my youth. I'll probably never have it again, but I can at the very least try not to commit myself to its opposite.

Of course your way of reading clearly brings you pleasure, so I don't mean to knock it in the slightest. I really mean that. Whatever works for you. I'm not making value judgments here. I'm actually after something much more descriptive.

dunkeys said...

I'm immensely enjoying this conversation, all aspects of it. Badges for all.

This isn't "my way of reading," at least not my preferred one. While I've enjoyed picking at Netherland, I don't read books and pick at them as a general habit (no paid book critic here). I pick enough at student essays and stories (and with an entirely different approach - patient encouragement, believe it or not). This is also why I'm impatient with 'real' books: "Netherland *should* be better!" I think. "Those lazy sentences *shouldn't* be there!" Etc. (I know, maybe the sentences aren't lazy . . . just showing my state of mind.)

I'd much rather read for pleasure: usually I stop reading books that don't resound for me after twenty, fifty, a hundred pages. As you say, why should I harp on my dislike for a book (by critically identifying its 'limitations,' the process of which simply 'proves' to myself my 'impeccable' taste) when it's better to read something I enjoy? So I move on. (Isn't this what we all do with TV, movies, visual arts, & even food? If someone recommends dinner at a new place we end up not liking . . . we (mentally) pick it apart, don't we? I certainly don't ignore the parts I don't like. I'm not wired that way.)

Save for this excellent conversation, I'd have put Netherland down by now and for the same reason you described so well: I'm also after "the innocent, feverish, uncritical reading of my youth." I'm giddy when I find it -- not with O'Neill, but this year with Bolano's TSD and Nabokov's Glory. (And I just read a collection by Lucy Corin that (partially) knocked my socks right off my feet, itself a splendid sight to see.)

Anyway: when I'm captive (even by choice, as here) to something that's not tugging at my socks, I tend to criticize it (Netherland, Tim McCarver). This is a juvenile and highly enjoyable habit (and I tell myself it's helped me as a writer, so it's fruitful, too, sigh, another badge, so heavy with badges).

cfp said...

It's not that I don't have occasion to sometimes do basically the same thing. Certainly I do, or have, under the precise circumstances you describe. I just don't read under those circumstances very often anymore. I wonder if something happens when we engage with art in some compulsory fashion--as teachers, as critics, as editors, as workshoppers, as book clubbers. A rhetorical engagement replaces a more emotional or intuitive engagement. In the absence of the former, the latter fills the vacuum. The mind must put something there--and of course, an intellectual, rhetorical engagement with literature is very worthwhile. The thing I used to worry about in myself is that it would become a preclusive habit and limit my reading. Many people don't have that problem, but I was beginning to see it in myself. So I basically got out of that end of the book business.

What I want, as both a reader and a writer, is for the reader to submit entirely. I don't mean "do more of the work" of interpretation or understanding, at least not necessarily. If anything, it's often less. I want for the reader to grant the author a total authority and faith in each and every decision--and to react emotionally and uncritically (though not unintelligently). Perhaps this is what we mean when we insist, however genuinely, that art be taken on its own terms.

How often does that happen? Oh, I don't know. For me as a reader, I am able to give that faith to perhaps one out of every twelve books I read. Not often, in other words. But it's what I'm looking for every time.

I usually give a book 100 pages to earn this from me or prove that it cannot. Obviously, we're commenting on this book very early in the process of reading it. So really all I can say so far is that I haven't been spurned yet.

traca de broon said...

I'm enjoying this conversation immensely as well. Haven't read the book (although Grendel and I did briefly eyeball it in Waterstones yesterday), but I miss this kind of discussion.

dunkeys said...

Upon finishing the book, a few general impressions. Spoiler alert!

-- the beginning of the second section is wonderful. A blend of memory, past and past-past, the odd Lewinsky sighting . . . this is for me the novel at its best. Peculiar, meditative (over life), detailed, sad. Very well done. It made me wonder why the first section existed. (Darn. I was trying to establish credibility by being positive first.)

-- a few nice moments in the third section but it's very scattered and narratively unsatisfying (which certainly has more to do with my expectations of narrative than anything else . . . the end of 2666, so lauded, seems like an obvious non-ending to me).

-- N'Land is narrated almost as though Hans is the narrator of several other books (is he?): confident, assured, dropping in minor characters here and there, assuming we're with him now, were with him before the novel, will be after. I wonder if this is intentional. Odd effect, anyway.

-- I know I've picked on sentences here and there, a petty thing, but my lord: O'Neill actually writes, "Chuck Ramkissoon was a rare bird" without flinching, without irony. This makes sense in context only, of course, but it's not good. Not so much that the pun of the sentence itself kills me -- it does -- but even more that the impulse to A) write it and B) keep it in the novel are so, so far from anything I consider good . . . and I mean 'good' in terms of this novel's tonal construction, not some vague non-contextualized 'good.' Minus many points.

-- I enjoyed the late New York v. London discussion but after a moment realized I liked it only because I'm American. It's an odd rhetorical move -- pandering, maybe? I don't know. It made me feel wary and a little slimy, anyway.

-- Rachel never works for me. As she becomes a bigger and bigger part of the novel, that's a big problem (and has much to do with my dissatisfaction of the final section and overall narrative).

-- the novel really does ask to be compared to Gatsby. I don't want to get into Gatsby here, as it's far from a favorite, but still: oops!

Last: this isn't the worst book I've read lately by any means. It's not offensive at all -- just disappointing and forgettable. For sake of comparison, I read Ian McEwen's Saturday last year (the only book I've read by him) and thought it fairly wonderful. Very different books: Saturday doesn't have any immigrant narrative (does Netherland, honestly?), but it does have a similar narrator and that same sad after-the-violence tone. Much more compressed, tense, complete, even, I'd say, complex.

kclou said...

I also finished the book, and though I liked it more than Dunkeys (more later), I did not like the Rachel storyline. It actually threatened to sink the book for me.

I found her deeply unsympathetic. She leaves the narrator for unconvincing reasons, takes up with another man (who seems entirely underwhelming), only returns to the narrator after pouting about the second guy leaving, and ultimately declares her love of the narrator to a therapist in a pedestrian way. Which he, in turn, loves.

She never charms me--in no way do I fall in love with her, or see why anyone would--and really she makes the narrator seem like kind of a loser for trailing behind her. Yet the novel asks to be looked at as a love story and packages itself, if you will, as a love story.

I'm curious to hear what others thought of her and this storyline; by the end of the book, it's as central as the Chuck storyline.

El Gordo de Amore said...

And here I roll in with the bozo comments from the hoi polloi....

I'm only about 60 pages in, but the tone is really bugging me as well -- not so much the passivity, but the hyper-articulation of things like noticing how a door opens.

Also, the guy's got something like $3 million in the bank (and stops to tell us about it) -- while money can't buy you love, the fact I kept wondering why he just didn't get the fuck out of New York and join a commune or paint or something bothered me (maybe a banker can never be a sympathetic character again, if it ever was -- I've been listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie lately). I felt like I would have cared about him more if finances could have closed down some decisions for him. Otherwise, I kept thinking, just move to an island or something.

Finally, the part at the beginning where he seems to imply he kissed his son only because he was a little drunk hit a wrong bell -- while it may have been an intent to show his repression and static depression, it just made me think of him as kinda creepy. Like he was saying he kissed a girl in a bar because he was a "little drunk." I kiss my kids constantly, and the narrator's seeming "sexualization" of the act creeped me out.

And the cover describes the book as a New York rendered "phantasmagoric," which made me excited that there would be elves or something -- bitterly dissapointed on that respect.

Grendel said...

I really enjoyed all this, even without reading the book. I hope we do another one? I want to play next time.

cfp said...

Kclou-It's funny. I see the cue on the back of the cover that this is a love story. But I didn't feel that cue from within the book. This is, among other things, a marriage story, sure. I think it's sort of important that she be eclipsed in my affections by Chuck. I didn't like her much either, for all the reasons you mention, but I do recognize something human in her and in this relationship. I see the fact that I'm not emotionally persuaded by this pairing to be the most realist, almost tragic and thus, weirdly, most romantic element of this book. She is persuasively unlikeable. Hans is persuasively in need of her and the family they make. I don't think there is anything about this book that leads me to expect any sort of larger, consolatory romance (are not all romances--soul mates, all that--in some way consolatory of that most fundamentally loneliness?)

I think I probably liked this book the most out of the four of us commenting. I liked it quite a lot without really agreeing with a single of the "teh awesome" comments on the back cover.

I have more to say. But I need to think about it some more. I'll write a post. Kclou hints that he might too have more to say.

dunkeys said...

Quick tangential thought: that extremely misleading book-jacket makes me wonder -- I mentioned earlier that I'd rather watch Hans more and listen to him less (3rd-person instead of 1st). Along the same lines, it's appealing for me to imagine this book 2x as big, Hans as only one of our three main characters, with Rachel and Chuck having equal weight.

I can't remember the last 'sweeping' omniscient novel I really enjoyed, but it's appealing to project/imagine N'land down that path. I'd love to let Rachel stand on her own: see her prior to Hans. See her in London, minus Hans -- those scenes on their vacation, waiting for the phone call might be fantastic with her as the focus.

Chuck, too, would thicken: his goofiness now is almost unavoidable the way the novel's set up as we only ever see him (and his life) through his own dialogue. But just following him around in 3rd could work better.

Maybe this is that rare book where more might be a lot better, where less is just less.

cfp said...

My initial reaction to that idea is that Hans's oblique perspective on Chuck's story--the novel's evocation of The Great Gatsby--is one of its more effective elements. There's a very dramatic story for Chuck, no doubt, of which we only see the barest edges. Obviously that's an unusual approach to take, and under most circumstances it would seem to me gimmicky or at least ill-advised. But for me it works because it is in keeping with Hans's understanding of the friendship and how men can most consolingly relate to one another (and even, in a wonderful parallel, how he is to understand his own mother).

What's so interesting to me is that, putting the structural frame aside, Hans doesn't spend much time wondering/speculating about Chuck's story. Indeed, he almost seems to refrain out of respect. The novel seems to be acknowledging and meditating on, in that most un-novelistic way, the mystery for all others that each person holds within their self. Most stories are premised on explicating that mystery via imagination, right? So for a writer to do the opposite so effectively is something I find satisfying.

But of course it wouldn't seem neat at all were I not persuaded on an emotional level. What I'm trying to figure out why I was emotionally persuaded by this book when you guys, generally, seem not to have been. I'll keep thinking.

It reminds me a lot of another book I just read, "Running Away" by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, though the effect there is more extreme. That book sets you up for plot-driven intrigue and then, as if out of principle, denies you in a very pointed and strangely effective way. I recommend it wholeheartedly.