Sentences — July 18, 2008, 11:45 am

Weekend Read: “The other side”

It’s always exciting when a novel by a writer of whom one hasn’t heard appears and is said to be terrific. Receiving the news, we readers are granted a few moments of healthy inhalation as we think about the prospect of reading a book said to be revivifyingly good. And let’s say, upon buying and reading the new good thing, we find ourselves agreeing easily with the good news. A triply lucky thing: a good book, a good review, a good read!

The only thing that could be better, of course, would be to encounter, afterward, a review that impugns our happy certainties, demolishes our delight, and argues that our feast of goodness is less digestible than we supposed. I don’t mean this perversely, but truly. “It’s only fair,” a character in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai puts it, “to give the other side a chance.”

Benjamin Kunkel, the novelist and critic, has provided such a better thing in this fortnight’s London Review of Books in a review of Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel Netherland. Kunkel’s critical attentions have been focused if not exclusively, then largely, upon writers however various whose poetry and prose tends to unfold in the first person (Frederick Seidel; Robert Walser; Roberto Bolaño; Samuel Beckett). As such, he is a usefully acute guide to O’Neill’s intelligent first person narrator’s indecisive time in New York City.

Of course, as Kunkel’s own novel, Indecision, is also written in the first person, is also set largely in New York City, and is also devoted to an exploration of a very intelligent man’s period in a netherland of his life, readers are offered the rare pleasure of watching one novelist thoughtfully unthink another thoughtful novelist’s aesthetic program—programs dissimilar enough (Kunkel’s novel is satiric; O’Neill’s romantic) to create critical sparks.

Kunkel’s “Men in White” begins:

“Netherland” is an ambiguous word. It evokes, of course, the Netherlands inhabited by the
Dutch, one of whom, Hans van den Broek, tells this story of a few late years spent in that
New World city founded almost four hundred years ago on Manhattan Island as New
Amsterdam, in what was then the territory of New Netherland. But “netherland” could also
mean any faraway place, as in those “nether regions” of the city where Hans’s teammates
from the Staten Island Cricket Club spend their nights. (Hans spends his nights in Chelsea, a
Manhattan neighbourhood hardly described in this book, notable for a high concentration of
well-built gay men, new condominiums, art galleries, bank branches and large home-furnishing outlets.) “Netherland” also has sinister overtones of Never Never Land, and sounds
like a euphemism for Hades.

—and continues here. I suggest it as your Weekend Read.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

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