Joseph O´Neill concludes his critically acclaimed novel Netherland with a scene from the Staten Island ferry. Hans van den Broek, the main character, recollects the view over Manhattan during a trip with his mother a few years earlier:
“a world concentrated most glamorously of all, it goes almost without saying, in the lilac arches of two amazingly high towers going up above all others”
I finished reading Netherland a few days after having taken the Staten Island ferry myself. It was, I must confess, my first visit to New York since early 2001. Of course I have read and heard much about the reactions to 9/11. Now, I visited the WTC Site and the provisional exhibition there. But is was first on the Staten Island ferry that I really was struck by the scar in the Manhattan skyline.
Netherland evolves around Hans, his family and the strange character of Chuck Ramkissoon the years after the Twin Towers collapsed. I found the main story and the characters somewhat disappointing, after the enthusiastic reviews. To me, Netherland lacks the magic of The Great Gatsby.
The strength of Joseph O´Neill novel is his way of describing people´s reaction to 9/11 in a subtle yet strong way. Reading the novel at the same time as visiting New York was an emotionally deep experience. I thought I had some comprehension of how Americans reacted to 9/11, but now it´s clear to me; such a trauma can only be fully understood by those who experience it first-hand.
Joseph O´Neill uses the game of cricket to connect Hans´world of investment banking to New Yorks taxi-drivers and restaurant workers. It is a clever way of describing the many facets of American life, including the darker sides.
One day, after having run into the wall of bureaucracy surrounding driving licenses, Hans steps out into the street:
“As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square´s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleamingly adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hssing over fresh slush, shone lika grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.”
In O´Neill´s novel, Hans finally emerges from the chaos after 9/11. How far is the US, or the rest of the world?