Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Great ... Novel

I have occasionally thought in the last few years that The Great American Novel, as an elusive concept, has been replaced by The Great Post-9/11 Novel. Certainly, a frontrunner for that one is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a justly lauded novel about a Dutch-born banker and his British wife, whose marriage crumbles during? because of? the stress of life in Manhattan post-9/11.

I'm guessing that many adored it for its loving depiction of the energy and wackiness of Manhattan, as well as the sorrow and sordidness of its illicit underbelly and the weariness of its corporate giants (we might feel less sorry for the protagonist today, thinking of AIG!). It has all of that in spades. To me, however, the characterization was ultimately unsatisfying, though done in that clever way so that you could say it was the wonderful art and subtlety of the author in realistically depicting the limits of ever knowing another human being, etc. etc. Come to think of it, it reminded me a great deal of Kazuo Ishiguro's self-deluded protagonists, but without Ishiguro's ability to expose the painful, almost crippling emotional wounds of his characters, wounds that are often the effect of the British establishment and imperial leftovers. Hans and his wife represent a more modern malaise, the loneliness, self-loathing, and pain that afflict people who have no obvious source of complaint and every seeming source of satisfaction -- or rather, 9/11 is put in as the source, when it plainly isn't the source so much as a catalyst for self-examination. I dunno. I really did not love it, but I'm almost afraid that it might be because I'm too much imbedded in the same framework to judge.

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