Tag Archives: September 11

Netherland (2008) – Joseph O’NEILL

This novel has been, in certain circles, at least, making waves as the favourite to win the Booker this year. While it was longlisted, it didn’t even make the shortlist in the end. What, then, was the hype all about? Why was this the post-Septermber 11 novel we’d all been waiting for? Why is this the ‘great American novel’, when it was written by an Irishman? So many questions…

When Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman living in England, receives a call from American police, he is informed that a friend of his Chuck Ramkissoon, has been found dead in a river. For Hans, this brings back memories of the few years he spent in New York City with his wife and young child in the early 2000s, when everything changed. Apart from his fractured marriage, he also begins to remember Chuck – a man who truly believed that cricket was, and could be again, the national sport of America.

This book is very clearly delineated into three sections. The first deals with the collapse of Hans’ marriage, the second with his growing friendship with Chuck, and the last with his eventual return to England. The first section is amazing – the prose is beautiful, and there are some amazing character and plot moments. Hans’ movement into NYC, and his young marriage, which are presented as flashbacks, are nicely juxtaposed with his current life in a hotel, living with some of the most fantastic characters ever written. I particularly like the Turkish angel – a Turkish man who dresses as an angel, and haunts the corridors of the hotel. While the other two sections of the book are also pretty good, it does seem to peak very early with this first section.

For me, as soon as I hit the second section, it was as though something had changed completely, even though the plot itself didn’t. Which is a shame, and I can’t quite place my finger on what it is that changes, or why I didn’t like it as much, but there you go. Maybe it’s because I hate cricket, and it’s not until the second section that it begins to become a focus. Not that this is a sporting novel – on the contrary, cricket becomes a way for all of these immigrants to come together and celebrate being different, which for Hans is particularly unique, considering he is the only white man on the cricket team. I suppose people who look like they should fit in are perhaps treated differently, and as such, have a very different experience in regards to what it means to be an outsider. For Hans, though, he always seems to have been an outsider – even in his own marriage. He is the strong but silent type, that keeps everything bottled up, and is content to plod along at life. This, of course, turns out to be the reason his marriage falls apart so quickly.

What I think is done really well is the character of Rachel. While I agree with her politics, she does seem to embody everything that was wrong about the reactions of people to the attacks of September 11. Granted, her early lingering fear is thoroughly and understandably justifiable, especially considering she is a new mum, but the fervour with which she tries to attack Hans for not having an opinion on the whole thing, when the American (or Bush administration, at least) reaction is clearly ‘wrong’, is so great that her refusal to see Hans’ reaction as normal breaks their marriage. Similarly, though, Hans’ inability to feel anything, to tell Rachel what he is thinking is nicely done. It is interesting that Hans then moves to a close male relationship – that with Chuck – to try and deal with this. In times of crisis, men come together and play sport to forget both their own troubles, and the troubles of the world, this book seems to be saying. Which is pretty true, I suppose – this stereotypically masculine thing of either ignoring the problem completely, or keeping it inside and refusing to discuss it.

Netherland is good, but it’s not mind-bogglingly great. It does, however, show signs of greatness – particularly that first section. And while this is certainly touted as a post-September 11 novel, and while the attacks are a catalyst for many of the things that take place, this is, in the end, a book about relationships, about masculinity and about marriage. And about cricket.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) – Mohsin HAMID

I’ve just finished a stressful essay on Modernist poetry, and needed something to take my mind off the depression such an essay can cause. Not literal depression, mind, just the despair of realising you have absolutely no idea what on earth these poets are trying to say. So, I dipped into the small pile of unread books on my shelf, and this one popped out at me. Shotlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, I see. Well, Darkmans was good. Surely this one, too?

Two mysterious men – one Pakistani, one American – meet in a cafe in the streets of Lahore, both with secrets to hide, and both with a story to tell. It is up to the Pakistani man, Changez, however, to tell the other the story of his recent life in America, and what led him to be the person that he is today. Being a foreigner in America immediately after the September 11 attacks, he tells the other man of his comfortable life being interrupted by racism, attacks, and the depression of his on-again, off-again American girlfriend.

Well, I wasn’t expecting this book to be as good as it is. I read it in two sittings, staying up late last night to finish. It’s like an extended short story, helped no doubt by the trick of the narrator actually speaking to “you”, for the reader becomes the American man to whom this story is narrated. It’s a nice touch, and the interruptions to the actual story, with the sub-plot of what is actually going on in this little cafe, are excellently done. I can imagine exactly how this small, polite Pakistani man might come up to me and start telling me the story of his life.

The story of Changez’s life in America is very well done, and the pun in the title of the book is a nice touch – while fundamentalist might conjure up images of suicide bombers and the such in today’s world, he actually becomes an economic fundamentalist – working for a company for whom the bottom dollar, the truth of each transaction, is vital, fundamental, even. His slowly growing disillusion with the way America works, and then responds to these events, unfolds perfectly, and you certainly understand exactly where he is coming from. While this could have so easily turned into an anti-American rant, Hamid restrains himself (far more than I think I ever could), and convincingly and calmly argues his point. Which, yes, is anti-American in its final message.

Perhaps most interesting is the ending. While the normal thing to do would be to end with Changez becoming some kind of fundamental American hater, he becomes a university lecturer, who holds classes that are not exactly pro-American in their leanings. To say that he becomes a terrorist is to deny what happens, though, granted, he could be lying. It just seems to be unfortunate that he ends up caught up in this world that tags him as a terrorist, simply because he is from Pakistan, and because he doesn’t like America. And yet, just as the American man to whom he is speaking doesn’t trust him, or anyone else around him for that matter, there is a sense that perhaps Changez is not telling the whole truth – the man doth protest too much, and all that. The ending doesn’t help to solve the ultimate uncertainty of what Changez’s role in all of this is, but I like to think that an intelligent reader will extrapolate that he isn’t an extremist – the rest of the book would certainly indicate that he does not have the ability to do something extreme.

What an excellent look at how the rest of the world currently views America. From an author who clearly has experience from both sides of the fence, this is a surprisingly though-provoking novel that deals with problems that are amazingly pertinent in today’s world. Short and sweet, but it will certainly make you think.

And I’m sorry about that terrible rhyme. My bad.

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) – Jonathan Safran FOER

The attacks on New York on September 11, 2001 have had (obviously) a massive effect on the way we live our lives. It is strange, therefore, that there are surprisingly few books or films that respond to them. It took a long time, I suppose, for this event to digest, and as such, it has taken many people a long time to write about it.

While these attacks are important to the plot of Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, they are far from the focus. Instead, we see the aftereffects – how they affected but one family, who already has enough issues of its own to be going on with. Oskar Schell is, like so many other protagonists of late, a pretentious nine-year-old, whose father died in the attacks. He lives with his mother, who is trying to move on, with a new ‘friend’ called Ron, as well as his grandmother – his father’s mother, who is also still trying to deal with the loss of her only child to a man that left her before she gave birth. While snooping through his mother’s wardrobe, Oskar discovers a key that his father has kept hidden, and he makes it his quest to find out what this key opens, and why it has been hidden.

Even though this is the hook that begins the book, the novel tells the story of three generations of this family – Oskar, his father, Thomas, as well as Oskar’s grandfather, whom he has never met. Since this is never totally explained in the novel until the very end, the jumps between timelines can be very very confusing. For me, anyway. They are, however, all written with very different styles, so they are easy to differentiate.

This brings me to a rather important point with this novel. Style. While this book is a novel, it is very much a po-mo (postmodern) novel. It takes many traditional literary techniques and turns them on their heads. Foer also invents some new ones. Like shoving pictures of doorknobs throughout the book. And having one sentence on one page. For no apparent reason that I can see. His flashiness gets very grating, up until about halfway through the novel, when he slows it down, and starts writing properly. Which he is very, very good at. I don’t mean to sound like an oldie, but a lot of the stuff in the book is not really necessary. Some of it is, and adds to the feel of the novel – like the sentences on a page, and the last 15 or so pictures, but the rest of it – like the entire section crossed out with red pen so it looks like a half finished manuscript – is not really, and can actually distract from what you are trying to read.

Now it sounds like I didn’t like the book. That’s not true – I did. It took a lot to get my head out of it (except for a few bits in the middle.) Foer is really a very good writer, when he isn’t trying to be funky and cool. Some passages are really quite touching, and the story he tells is very important. Give it a go, and be prepared for something a little different. And hey, it has pictures – always a good sign.

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