Khamraj “Chuck” Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant of Indian descent, is found floating facedown, murdered, in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Chuck is a philosopher/schemer who dreams of reviving the sport of cricket in the United States. Let’s see: floating, murdered, dreamer, entrepreneur. Sounds like Jay Gatsby, right? Even the dust jacket says so. And critics are buying the comparison, hailing Joseph O’Neill’s novel, Netherland (Pantheon, 256 pages, $23.95), as a masterpiece of the post-9/11 age.
But in Netherland, the murderer is never named, the motive for the killing only hinted at. That’s because Netherland isn’t The Great Gatsby; it’s an overlong episode of Seinfeld, without the laughs. Jerry is Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born investment banker from London, living in New York City with his wife, Rachel, and their young son. (OK, in the Netherland version of Seinfeld, Jerry is actually married to Elaine and they have a kid.) Chuck is Kramer, constantly intruding in Hans’ life, exasperating and captivating him at the same time with his extroversion and elaborate schemes to make a fast buck. And the cricket scheme is a doozy: Chuck leases a public park and starts turning it into a cricket pitch that he envisions will one day host international test matches between teams from Asia and the West Indies on satellite television. Cricket, after all, was once America’s pastime, Chuck notes; even Benjamin Franklin was an avid cricketer. And yet Chuck’s cricket idea hits for a duck (strikes out). O’Neill devotes too few pages to Chuck’s fascinating theory—that cricket could impart civility to post-9/11 America’s relations with immigrants, many of whom are avid cricketers like ol’ Ben Franklin.
For a sport in which a single match can drag on for days, there is very little cricket in Netherland. Instead, Hans spends most of his time contemplating his own misery in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Manhattan and the disintegration of his marriage to Rachel, often while in the company of George from Seinfeld, who in Netherland is played by a range of characters, from a fast-food restaurant critic to a transvestite in angel wings and a wedding dress. Granted, O’Neill’s descriptions of New York are exquisite—so finely written, in fact, that they remind one of New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane’s remark about the novel The English Patient, “which was so finely written that I found it, to all intents and purposes, unreadable.” Nothing really happens in Netherland, or nothing for a reason anyway. A man is murdered, we’re not sure why. A marriage heals, we’re not sure how. Just as Seinfeld was famous for being “the show about nothing,” Netherland is a novel, to all intents and purposes, about nothing.
READ: Joseph O’Neill appears at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm Monday, June 23. Free.