Joseph O’Neill, the author of two novels (This Is the Life and The Breezes) and a family history (Blood-Dark Track), draws on The Great Gatsby to reimagine the American dream in an era when that vision has lost much of its allure.
The Story: In 2006, Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker living in London, learns that Chuck Ramkissoon, a former friend, has been killed. The death spurs Hans to recall his years in New York just after 9/11, when, infuriated by his sluggish behavior, his English-born wife and son returned to the safety of London. During those years, despite his monthly visits to London, the alienated Hans wonders where life went so wrong. His outlook changes when he takes up his childhood game of cricket and meets Chuck, an idealistic, if shady, Trinidadian entrepreneur who introduces him to a New York where immigrants and expatriates still believe in the American dream. As Hans narrates his friendship with Chuck, he pans back and forth between his childhood in the Netherlands, his present-day life in London with his reconciled family, and the post-9/11 New York that, through Chuck, offered him a new lease on life.
Pantheon. 256 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0307377040
"Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel Netherland … a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. … Netherland has an ideological intricacy, a deep human wisdom, and prose grand enough to dare the comparison [to V. S. Naipaul and F. Scott Fitzgerald]." James Wood
"The unattainable green in Netherland is not the light at the end of a dock [as in The Great Gatsby], but the bright grass of a cricket pitch, and the dream is of cricket as a civilising, cosmopolitan force that will rid the US of its insularity and enable it to build bridges with the immigrant Muslims and Hindus who play the game. … It is a measure of O’Neill’s considerable novelistic gifts that Ramkissoon’s quixotic dream never subsides into bathos, or loses its glamorous allure." Declan Hughes
New York Times
"If some of these passages reverberate with echoes of The Great Gatsby and its vision of New York … the reader can only surmise that they are entirely deliberate, for, like Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, Joseph O’Neill’s stunning new novel, Netherland, provides a resonant meditation on the American Dream. … Like Gatsby, Netherland is narrated by a bystander, an observer, who makes the acquaintance of a flamboyant, larger-than-life dreamer, who will come to signify to him all of America’s possibilities and perils." Michiko Kakutani
NY Times Book Review
"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 macro level, it’s about nearly everything: family, politics, identity." Dwight Garner
"Netherland is a story of equipoise, essentially, and the character of the murdered Chuck Ramkissoon, a shady businessman and cricket fanatic originally from Trinidad, serves as a foil to Hans and his malaise as he meditates on his past." Art Winslow
"The power and poignancy of this remarkable book derive from his textured prose and his tender, nuanced recreations of places present and remembered: the Hague of his childhood, the London of his early married years, and especially the New York of his unmoored expat odyssey. Through Hans we encounter a New York of cabdrivers, cooks, and back-alley businessmen, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, speaking in the tongues of Guyana, Jamaica, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka, and meeting to play cricket." Don George
Few novels that reference a classic actually live up to that classic, but critics agreed that Netherland, modeled after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, lives up to Fitzgerald’s archetypal portrayal of the American dream. O’Neill reflects on what Jay Gatsby’s unattainable green light means almost a century later in a New York tarnished by 9/11, a place where cricket-playing immigrants believe in the dream’s elusive promises. Critics called the premise brilliant and thought that the novel’s structure (the story begins in 2006 and then flashes back through 2001, 2002, and 2003) allowed for uniquely deep introspection into family, identity, and a multicultural city. The New York Times Book Review reflected the general critical sentiment: "Netherland is a bit like the wily and ebullient Chuck Ramkissoon. It has more life inside it than 10 very good novels."
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
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 marries 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 nostalgia 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 sympathize 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 each other 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?
Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Ian McEwan, Saturday; Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero; Walter Percy, The Moviegoer; Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph O'Neill was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1964 and grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, and Holland. His previous works include the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes and the nonfiction book Blood-Dark Track, a family history centered on the mysterious imprisonment of both his grandfathers during World War II, which was a New York Times Notable Book. He writes regularly for The Atlantic Monthly. He lives with his family in New York City.