Friday, January 9, 2009

A New Category?

What exactly is 'Post-9/11 fiction'? I've seen this term used to describe several recent books, including “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer and “Falling Man” by Don DeLillo. Does it mean that the characters experienced 9/11 themselves, or that they were affected by it, or that the author's point of view was influenced by it?

Joseph O'Neill's book Netherland also falls into this category. The title refers to the country where Hans Van den Broek, a Dutch banker living in New York, was born and raised. But it also seems to refer to his state of mind. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, where his family relocated after 9/11 made their Lower Manhattan loft uninhabitable. And in this unsettled atmosphere his marriage begins to unravel: “We were trying to understand...whether we were in a preapocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the '30s or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic, like that of the cold war inhabitants of New York, London, Washington and, for that matter, Moscow." His English wife Rachel returns with their son to London, and Hans is left alone with the odd cast of characters who inhabit the hotel. He seems to drift along in a kind of nether world, uninterested in his job, unsure about the future of his marriage. The only activity that engages him is the cricket he plays each weekend with a team of immigrants. By chance he encounters a charming and mysterious Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck introduces Hans to New York as seen through the eyes of an immigrant, where the American Dream involves building a world class cricket field on an abandoned airfield in Brooklyn.

“Netherland” has been compared to “The Great Gatsby”. Like Jay Gatsby, Chuck is a mysterious outsider attempting to succeed in America. Like Gatsby his efforts cost him his life. Unlike in Gatsby, we learn this fact in the very first pages of the book rather than the last, as Hans, now reunited with his wife in London, looks back on his time in New York. I loved O'Neill's writing style, fragmented and almost dream-like but also frank and unsparing. It seemed to reflect Van den Broek's state of mind. And his descriptions of the cricket games, which Hans experiences with an intensity unmatched in the rest of his life, actually made me want to watch one.

O'Neill's book seems to fit my understanding of 'Post-9/11 fiction'. It deals peripherally with the events of that day, but more importantly it presents characters whose ways of thinking and acting have been changed by those events.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading the blog after having read the book! You wrote about most of the aspects of the discussion we had last night. It is so hard to read these blogs and not have time to read these great books!