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Book Report: Netherland

I was initially prepared to like Netherland, about which I mainly heard that it was a cricket book. Then it was mentioned as one of the Literary Books of the Year, and I lost interest. Then I picked it up again, read a bit in it, and put it back on the library bookshelf, and now, needing an O for my AtoZ, pulled it back down from that library bookshelf and read the thing.

It was… excellent in parts? I dunno. I have no idea what the book as a whole was about. I mean, I have no idea why I should care about the main character, an absurdly wealthy man who appears to drift through life aimlessly, as his wife leaves him and then returns to him, as he leaves one adopted country for another and then returns, as he associates himself and then dissociates himself from a con artist who later dies. He never appeared to want anything or begin any action, and while that was represented as a sort of depression, the book was not in any way about his struggle with that ailment.

On the other hand, I didn’t dislike it enough to stop partway through. There were bits I found fascinating, and even a few bits I found moving. And Mr. O’Neill has a gift for finely observed minutiae, which presumably other readers thought added up to more than the sum of its tiny, tiny parts. I didn’t.

I’ll talk for a minute about one scene that I found memorable, for good or ill, and of course it’s about cricket. Early in the book Mr. O’Neill describes the cricket grounds our protagonist plays on, public parks where cricket’s demands run third or fourth to the demands of more popular sports. Moderately well-kept, these fields have grass that slows, rather than speeds, a batted ball. Thus the well-placed conservative shot, looking to roll between fielders to the boundary for four runs, or requiring a strenuous run-field-throw to keep the batsman to two, is instead likely to die a short distance from the crease with no opportunity to score. Meanwhile, an open-shouldered uppercut of a swing, a baseball swing not to put too fine a point on it, while retaining the risk of getting a batsman caught out, has a chance to clear the barrier on the fly for six runs. The balance of risk and reward is different in the cricket oval here, as it is outside it, but our protagonist cannot bring himself to change his swing, finding himself blocking and nurdling his way toward low run rates and low totals.

Late in the book, he describes a moment when, as he approaches the wicket to bat, his friend—this is the confidence man, numbers runner and shadowy investor whose fascination for our protagonist is called Gatsby-esque by reviewers who liked the book more than I did—urges him to swing for six. He does. He hits it over the rope, and writes how, in that moment, he discovers that he can hit the ball in the air without compromising his identity, that he is still who he was, even doing a thing he thought he would not do. He is, I suppose, pleased with this discovery, although the affectless prose fails to prod emotion from him or me, but the point is that, having refused to adapt his game to the ground in reluctance to abandon his fundamental nature forever, he feels fundamentally the same person.

But of course he is wrong about that. He isn’t the same person, he just thinks he is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,