Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two Cities / Cricket

"London is what it is. In spite of a fresh emphasis on architecture and an influx of can-do Polish plumbers, in spite, too of the Manhattanish importance lately attached to coffee and sushi and farmers' markets, in spite even of the disturbance of 7/7 - a frightening but not a disorienting occurrence, it turns out - Londoners remain in the business of rowing their boats gently down the stream. Unchanged, accordingly, is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling lightheartedness that's aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I've speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood's hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: the you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point."


"Each of us is a year older. Throwing a ball is harder than we remember, as is the act of turning one's shoulder to bowl a ball. The ball itself feels very hard: skyers struck in catching practice are a little frightening. Bats that were light and wandlike when picked up fantastically during the off-season are now heavy and spadelike. Running between the wickets leaves us breathless. Trotting and bending down after a moving ball hurts body parts we'd thought renewed by months of rest. We have not succeeded, we discover, in imagining out of existence cricket's difficulty. Never mind. We are determined to make a clean try at things. We show in the field like flares.

I've heard that social scientists like to explain such a scene - a patch of America sprinkled with the foreign-born strangely at play - in terms of the immigrant's quest for subcommunities. How true this is: we're all far away from Tipperary, and clubbing together mitigates this unfair fact. But surely everyone can also testify to another, less reckonable kind of homesickness, one having to do with unsettlements that cannot be located in spaces of geography or history; and accordingly it's my belief that the communal, contractual phenomenon of New York cricket is underwritten, there where the print is finest, by the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere - longings concerned with horizons and potentials sighted or hallucinated an in any event lost long ago, tantalisms that touch on the undoing of losses too private and reprehensible to be acknowledged to oneself, let alone to others. I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice."

- from Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

I have neither the time nor the heart to write a proper review of Netherland, and anyway James Wood does a finer job of it than I ever could. Suffice it to say that I think Wood's invocation of Fitzgerald in discussing O'Neill's book is apt - a trifle exaggerated, perhaps - but apt. Netherland is a graceful, meditative and quietly compelling book, that manages, despite a few rather ham-handed 'political' passages to be one of the most successful accounts of post-9/11 angst and the means of coming to terms with it. O'Neill succeeds where others have failed, I think, not only because, as Wood says, he has found the perfect conceit to portray the sense of dislocation that 9/11 gave rise to, but because he brings to the subject a depth of perspective other books have often lacked. Because the story is told from the perspective of 2005, and told moreover, from the point of view of one who has made peace with the aftershock of that calamitious day, it has a calmness, a sense of elegaic proportion; 9/11 is important, it is even cathartic, but it is not everything. And because it is told from the perspective of a narrator who is very much an outsider to New York and to the United States, because O'Neill takes the trouble to sketch for us not only the alienation following 9/11 and the reality of the marginal communities and neighborhoods that surround our Sex and the City version of Manhattan, but also the authentic feel of that Manhattan itself, the energy and vibrance of that most idiomatic of cities, we experience a real sense of place, a location that is essential to imagining the dislocation that is the focus of the book. At the same time, O'Neill is careful not to overstep his brief - he keeps the novel closely focused on the specifics of one man's, no, two men's story, and never, for a moment allows ambition to lead him astray into trying to tell the story of a city. Which is not to say that the main action occurs in a vacuum, Netherland is a book firmly located in its time and location, but the guide ropes that tie it in place are provided by a rich cast of marginal characters, who flicker on the outskirts of the story, without ever causing its central focus to shift.

But that's not what I really wanted to say. What I really wanted to say was that Netherland also features some of the finest portrayals of the game of cricket that I've ever seen in print. As regular readers of this blog know, I'm largely uninterested in cricket, to an extent, in fact, that is almost unpatriotic, but reading O'Neill's descriptions of the game even I found myself moved by nostalgia for the old bat and ball. Nostalgia is the operative word here, because the cricket that O'Neill celebrates is the old gentleman's game of elegance and finesse (see, for instance, the final section of this opening excerpt), a classical pastime he celebrates not only in his descriptions of the sport itself, but in the very tone and pace of his book, which with its quiet, wristy touches, its little nudges to the plot, its lyrical strokes of story-telling has the ballet like quality of a well put together test innings. If you love cricket and good writing, this is a book you simply have to read.

1 comment:

enjay said...

The excerpts read well, though he seems a bit..long winded? I just ordered my copy. Thanks!