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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.

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