Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #20: Favorite Novel of New York

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Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
(bonus: most likely to become a classic)

You probably don't need me to tell you about this book -- it's made every shortlist and Top 10 list it was eligible for. Critics are comparing it to The Great Gatsby -- which it certainly references -- and its sales show that readers think highly of it as well. As my "bonus" indicates, I'm inclined to the camp that thinks this is a book that will be read for years to come.

It's not a perfect book. If you like cricket you probably won't get enough of it, and if you don't care about cricket you'll probably think there's too much, and as a lifetime Brooklynite recently pointed out to me, O'Neill gets some of his geography wrong. And you might feel like you never get to know Chuck, one of the two central characters (though not the narrator). But like Gatsby, Chuck is somewhat inscrutable, and something of an iconic figure of the American dream -- a darker-skinned, poorer one for the 21st century, but no less ambitious or driven by great longing. O'Neill's skill is to draw him through the eyes of a man without noticable drives of any kind, who lives primarily in his mind and in the past, whose observations drift from a New York street in spring to the Netherlands of his childhood. I found myself drifting in my own reveries of New Yorks I have known, my own defining moments, and the wealth of landscape and literature and texture and humanity that makes up our experience.

O'Neill's writing consciousness and memory reminded me a lot of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- though when I met O'Neill he admitted he'd never read Woolf. (I gave him a copy of Mrs. Dalloway for research purposes.) Still, I think O'Neill's achievement is both a pleasure and a challenge for the reader, interlaced with themes worth pursuing, and providing a great deal of the pure joys of reading.