Sentences — May 30, 2008, 11:50 am

Weekend Read: A series of small dawns

josephoneill

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.

Read the rest of O’Neill’s “The Ascent of Man”.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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