We Tired Americans
Every decade deserves an iconic novel. The drinkers and brawlers of "The Sun Also Rises" (1926) defined the Lost Generation, just as the wanderings of the Joad family in "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) sketch a cruel map of the Great Depression. Cynics might suggest that Twitter feeds and Facebook updates hew closest to our cultural zeitgeist. But however beleaguered the printed word may be, it will never disappear into the abyss of a Google server. Sometimes we need a book to really get it right.
No novel better captures the background dread of everyday life these days -- terrorism jitters, credit-default swaps, mutant flu strains -- than Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland". Like "The Great Gatsby" -- to which it bears obvious resemblance -- "Netherland" compresses the American experience into a critical mass, and then proceeds to pick it apart. Like Fitzgerald, O'Neill works principally with two characters: Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker living in New York whose wife has returned to London following 9/11, and Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant with countless moneymaking schemes, the grandest of which is the New York Cricket League.
Unlike immigrants of the previous century, Chuck is emboldened enough to remake the American Dream in his own image. "I say we must claim our rightful place in this wonderful country," he tells Hans after a cricket match on Staten Island. Later, they tour a desolate stretch of Brooklyn that will be his fantasy made flesh: Bald Eagle Field. "It's got scale," Chuck says confidently, "It makes it American." He speaks with elation of the South Asians -- potential customers, all -- who have "overrun" New York and its environs. He wants to be American, but on his own terms.
Chuck's enthusiasm is tempered by Hans's malaise. "I felt, above all, tired," he says on the cusp of his wife's departure. "Tiredness: if there was a constant symptom of the disease in our lives at this time, it was tiredness. At work we were unflagging; at home the smallest gesture of liveliness was beyond us." Unable to share his wife's passion for anti-war protests, he admits to being "a political-ethical idiot." And after a dalliance with another woman, his emotions are "no more specific than a pleasant anxiousness."
"Netherland" has been called a post 9-11 novel, but that isn't quite true: it is a post-American novel, announcing the conclusion of what Time founder Henry Luce called in 1941 the American Century. His magazine revisited that claim in 1990 and suggested American dominance would continue into the new millennium. It located the reinvigoration of the American spirit in New York, whose gritiness was not yet an assset to bohemians and developers: "even in New York City, alongside the decay and decline, the irrepressible drive, the jackhammer energy, the ambition as high as the builders' cranes, the opportunities as exciting as the turbulent street scenes."
Hans refutes this argument with his bleak vision of the city. In Midtown he is "seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adapted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space...where icy matter stuck to the pipes...you saw a foul mechanical dark." By the end of his sojourn in New York, he only finds solace in traveling -- via Google Earth -- to the outer atmosphere, until "the USA as such is nowhere to be seen."
Hans leaves America disillusioned, but his fate is mild compared to Chuck's. The novel opens with his body floating in the Gowanus Canal -- a waterway that Hans' countrymen cultivated nearly 400 years ago, but which is now chocked with waste. It is a far cry from Long Island Sound, on whose shores Jay Gatsby's prevarications also end in a watery grave. As with "The Great Gatsby", the American Dream can be a comforting invention, but one is disabused of it rather roughly.
In fact, some don't bother at all. "My idea was you don't need America," says a South Asian entrepreneur after Chuck's death. "Why would you? You have the TV, Internet markets in India, in England. These days that's plenty. America? Not relevant. You put the stadium there and you're done."
None of this makes "Netherland" anti-American. But it is a novel about a different country than the one Luce imagined: still a world player still but not the undisputed star, no longer the salvation those masses yearning to breathe free. In fact, "Netherland" was one of the first novels that President Obama read when taking office. Unlike the previous president, he seems to have few illusions about where we find ourselves. And that, somehow, gives hope.