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Joseph O’Neill’s new novel Netherland has been fêted for its many uncommon and careful virtues. The novel is barely underway before O’Neill steamrolls the reader with descriptive writing so vivid and original that one feels compelled to ration out one’s reading in small helpings, to savor the writing’s fineness. New York City at night, observed from the Chelsea Hotel, is a feast of seeing and hearing.
Novels used to allow themselves to luxuriate in looking, to provide images to a world that had not yet been buried by them. This is less usual now, novelists not needing to paint landscapes as abundantly as in the past. Or it can be merely a matter of talent.
Talent hides effort (effortfully), but it is nonetheless useful to note such efforts hiding in time. To the end of seeing O’Neill on the road to his unique expressive gifts or, if you prefer, on the road with them, I suggest you read, this weekend, a fine piece of reportage by O’Neill from Granta‘s Winter 2000 issue.
Sure to make your workplace printer churn with borrowed virtue, O’Neill’s story contains a paragraph that will remind new admirers of Netherland. Identical similes, say (one later uploaded into that description of New York mentioned above), can be seen serving, though no less beautifully, in O’Neill’s view of Trinidad:
It was dark now, and the oil rigs glittered in the ocean like casinos. In the sky at the horizon, the glows from more distant drilling platforms showed like a series of small dawns. Presently, about fifty yards away, we noticed a blob in the water that could have been a boulder washed by the surf. Imperceptibly but steadily, like the minute hand of a clock, the object moved out on to the beach. We did not approach it—a turtle can be disturbed into retreating to the water. Looking through Ishmael’s binoculars, I could see the creature paddling its flippers and schlepping itself uphill over the damp, packed sand. Finally, the leatherback reached the higher part of the beach. She began moving in a circle, flinging away the soft sand in a kind of breaststroke, and then wriggled her body down into the depression she had made for herself. Then she began to dig with her rear feet. Now we approached. She was immense. Her carapace—leathery and ridged and oval—looked like the keel of an upturned boat. The turtle’s rear flippers dug and dug until there was a hole about one foot wide and two feet deep. Then the eggs began to drop from the rear of her belly. They fell steadily, soft glistening white spheres like snooker balls. She laid about a hundred in all. Then she buried them with sand flipped by her rear legs, occasionally panting and sighing, revolving and splashing in the sand until the eggs were hidden from predators. Ishmael Samad softly patted her enormous head, with its beaked bill and lachrymose eyes.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”