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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:
Conversation — October 2, 2015, 8:26 am
“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”
Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.
The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.
Percentage of British citizens who say that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom:
In the United Kingdom, a penis-shaped Kentish strawberry was not made by snails.
The Playboy mansion in California was bought by the heir to the Twinkie fortune, and a New Mexico man set fire to his apartment to protest his neighbors’ loud lovemaking.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”