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:

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

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.

One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.

Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

1

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today