/ 25 May 2008

US hails cricket fan’s novel that met 9/11 challenge

It is a subject that has engaged some of the biggest names in international letters: Don DeLillo in Falling Man, Ian McEwan in Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Each attempted to explain in imaginary terms that great reordering of western life, which happened on 9/11 when New York’s Twin Towers were destroyed by al-Qaeda terrorists.

But it is the unlikely figure of a 44-year-old Irish-born sports enthusiast of Turkish descent, raised in The Netherlands and educated in the United Kingdom, who is now being hailed by some of America’s most influential literary critics for having produced a masterpiece on the subject.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the metaphor that Joseph O’Neill has chosen for his novel, set in post-9/11 New York, is that most un-American of pastimes — cricket.

O’Neill’s Netherland, published this month — the name a pun on the main character’s Dutch nationality — has been described as the ”wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Centre fell”.

Those paeans of praise were delivered by Dwight Garner in the New York Times Book Review, which featured the book on the cover under the heading ”The Ashes”.

But it is the review in New Yorker magazine by James Wood — described as the ”best literary critic of his generation” — that has excited most curiosity about O’Neill, who had written two well-received novels and a work of history, but had remained far outside the ranks of the DeLillos and McEwans in terms of recognition and earning potential.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Wood ranks O’Neill’s efforts alongside a dizzying array of the greatest novelists: Gogol and Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, VS Naipaul and F Scott Fitzgerald.

It is an unexpected triumph for a novelist and keen sportsman who took the names of many of his friends — including this newspaper’s sports journalists Oliver Owen and Will Buckley — to supply sly names for characters in his first novel.

An accomplished club cricketer who played for Den Haag in Holland and currently turns out for a New York side, it is, however, O’Neill’s reflections on the texture and intimacies of the world post-9/11 — a peculiarly American cultural moment despite its global resonance — that has attracted the admiration of the critics.

O’Neill himself said on Saturday that he was ”flabbergasted, amazed and shocked” by the response to the book so far. ”When I told publishers that I was writing a novel about cricket in New York people just shook their heads and walked away. There was not so much a bidding war for it as a bidding peace. Only one publisher was interested.”

The result of seven years of effort, the inspiration was driven by a series of chance events — an encounter with a Pakistani seeking to build a cricket stadium in New York, 9/11 itself and O’Neill’s own involvement in playing cricket in New York. The two ideas merged following 9/11.

”I was always aware of the metaphorical resonance,” he said. ”After the attack on the Twin Towers I could not ignore what was happening in New York.”

The relationship between Netherland‘s two central characters — man and wife — taps into the emotional rupture identified by Psychology Today magazine in the aftermath of the attacks as a generalised anxiety condition that afflicted an entire nation. ”There was a feeling of disorientation,” says O’Neill, ”that turned into a sense that that feeling of threat was being exacerbated and manipulated by the Bush administration”.

For Garner it was O’Neill’s description of New York after the towers fell that rang powerfully true. ”O’Neill writes beautifully,” he commented in his review, ”about what it sometimes felt like in the months after 9/11, when you couldn’t attend a dinner party unless you were intellectually armed for hours of bitter debate: ‘For those under the age of 45 it seemed that world events had finally contrived a meaningful test of their capacity for conscientious political thought. Many of my acquaintances, I realised, had passed the last decade or two in a state of intellectual and psychic yearning for such a moment — or, if they hadn’t, were able to quickly assemble an expert arguer’s arsenal of thrusts and statistics and ripostes and gambits and examples and salient facts and rhetorical manoeuvres. I, however, was almost completely caught out.”’

Commenting on his enthusiasm for Netherland on Saturday Woods maintained his enthusiasm, suggesting that the book deserved to be on the Booker Prize shortlist at the very least. ”At his best he has the interest in the world.” he said, ”and in the hubbub of American life of a writer like Saul Bellow, combined with the elegant, restrained but lyrical prose (and humour) of someone like Alan Hollinghurst.

”More than that, I like the way that what seems a very English eye (for all that O’Neill is Irish and his narrator Dutch) is gazing on contemporary Manhattan, and seeking out these seemingly marginal lives — the dark-skinned colonials who live in the outer boroughs (Indians, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, Sri Lankans), and doing this with a mixture of fascination and slight bemusement.”

But it is O’Neill’s use of cricket to tackle post-9/11 Manhattan that has struck Woods most forcefully as a metaphor for a series of important ideas.

”Above all,” he adds, ”the way he uses cricket to bind his novel together, and to generate meaning in a post-colonial age, is wonderful. What his novel proves, of course, is that ‘post-colonial’, that academic term, is a terrible misnomer: there is nothing ‘post’ about these lives; these immigrants are both colonials and colonists, and he uses the Dutchness — and whiteness — of his narrator to comment on this.

”And all this is, on the one hand, done with a very light touch and on the other hand is deeply ambitious: the book clearly has The Great Gatsby in its sights. O’Neill should pack his dinner jacket for October … and the Booker.”

And if O’Neill’s book proves to be the critical and artistic success that Woods is predicting, it will have answered the question posed by the online journal Salon, which has been troubling critics since the first batch of 9/11 novels appeared in 2005.

Then Salon asked: ”What took so long? Has it really been long enough? Can fiction redress the wounds of that day? Are we ready to even try? Is it even possible to write a novel about 9/11 that is actually good?”

According to Wood, the answer is finally an emphatic yes in what he describes as one of the ”most resounding post-colonial books I have ever read”. It is fuelled, Woods argues, by the idea of cricket itself: a game whose ”un-Americanness” becomes for one of the characters ”an American dream, or perhaps a dream of America … played in New York since the 1770s”.

Or as O’Neill himself has said: ”If George W Bush was interested in cricket, everything might be different.” – guardian.co.uk Â