Sentences — February 9, 2009, 2:52 pm

Netherland; or, the Fishy Artificial Starfish

A novelist friend (who has asked to remain anonymous), having heard all the encouraging words here and elsewhere about Joseph O’Neill’s third novel, Netherland, started to read it a few days ago. He wrote me with an update:

So far, I’m slightly disappointed. He’s clearly smart and is doing the right kind of work—trying to access characters’ emotions and describe the world and how it feels—but I’m finding his writing to be too fusty or ornate. Though sometimes the descriptions are precise and impressive, other times I feel he uses a bigger word when a smaller one would be better. Formally, I also think it’s quite conventional.

I wrote back to my friend to say that I loved Netherland, particularly for the quality of O’Neill’s prose. The plot is admittedly muted, and the stakes equally so (in part because we know, as of the novel’s second page, that the character with whom the narrator is most in conflict throughout the novel, other than himself, is a wife he’ll have reconciled with by the end). That said, the intelligence of the sentences and paragraphs, not to say how that intelligence corresponds with a depressed central character, felt believable and, by the end, moved me. “Muted” is the very the worst I’d say about the novel, a bit emotionally sterile–but fittingly so given the nature of the story, and one which has, to my mind, a fittingly sublime ending.

That said, I did tell my friend that I could understand that the novel, in the terms it sets for itself, could end up feeling, for some readers, both too much (too dependent on description of the visible world as a way to evoke interior states) and not enough (not enough story, not enough external conflict). It was enough, though, for me.

My friend found this reply to be, if not completely unconvincing, wide of the mark. He found that O’Neill’s much-vaunted prose was getting something of a pass, not receiving the rigorous scrutiny it needed:

I keep encountering sentences like this one [regarding the motley residents of the Chelsea]:

Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel.

I’d argue that it’s overreaching to begin with. I can follow it, and almost appreciate it, until he gets to “the artificial starfish” (bad, because of the double “fish” sound) and then I’m completely confused. Firmament is sky, but how is the gravel at the bottom of the tank like a sky? Even if you have this artificial starfish lying on it, my response is that it does not make a firmament. And so the entire thing rings false.

I pointed my friend to definition 3 of “firmament,” from the OED:

  1. a. In the literal etymological sense: Anything which strengthens or supports; a substratum, a firm support or foundation. lit. and fig.

I didn’t think my OED citation was Q.E.D., exactly, but I thought I was on to something. My friend, alas, did not. He wrote back, swiftly:

How does #3 apply to the starfish? Even in that usage, I still don’t get it. And I also wonder how big the starfish is. Even an artificial one. The average one would be pretty big relative to the size of an aquarium owned by a little kid filled with “cheap fish.” No? You see where I’m heading with this. The sentence, far from offering a clear concrete image, raises too many questions. And if you’re going to use a less common usage of a word, you’d better hope that your context makes it clear. Especially if it threatens to draw your mind closer to the more common usages of the word! And the OED aside, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the sentence. How do you read it?

Good question, which I’ll return to on Wednesday.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“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.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2016

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

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.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Average number of pounds of pennies in an American home:

6

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

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.'

Subscribe Today