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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:
- 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.
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.’”
Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.
Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.
Average amount the company paid each of its 140 top executives last year:
Between one fifth and one half of England’s leisure horses are obese.
Scientists in the Galápagos Islands credited an endangered giant tortoise named Diego with saving his species by fathering more than 800 offspring.
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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.'”