TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Joseph O'Neill, the author of the bestselling novel "Netherland," which was recently published in paperback. It's the novel President Obama said he was reading in the evenings.
Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, described "Netherland" as a novel about post-9/11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby." New York Times book critic Dwight Garner said that on a macro level, "Netherland" is about nearly everything: family, politics, identity.
The narrator, Hans, is a Dutch-born investment banker who moves to New York from London with his wife, Rachel, and their young son in the late 1990s. After 9/11 Rachel takes their son and moves back to London, where she thinks they'll be safer.
On his own and lonely in New York, Hans discovers a subculture of immigrants who play cricket, and he gets involved with one of them who is part dreamer, part con man. Joseph O'Neill was born in Ireland and grew up in Africa, Iran, Turkey and Holland. "Netherland" won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Aware.
Joseph O'Neill, welcome to FRESH AIR. So has President Obama finished your book yet? Do you have any idea?
Mr. JOSEPH O'NEILL (Author, "Netherland"): I haven't heard yet, and I'm not sure that I ever will hear.
GROSS: What was your reaction when you found out he was reading it?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I mean, I was - I'm a big, you know, Obama fan, and I was a supporter during the election, so - and the primary. So I was thrilled privately. But on the other hand, I suppose that if I sort of reflect about it, I sort of feel, in a way, that it would be wrong to be too thrilled because why shouldn't a president read a novel? You know, in this case it happens to be mine, and I sort of feel that it's - there's such a sort of asymmetrical relationship between the president and the rest of the world in terms of power that it can only be good for the soul of such a powerful man, whether it's this president or another, to submit temporarily to the authority of a novel because, you know, whatever the nature of the novel, it is actually, ultimately, a submissive act to read a novel.
You do think, for the period of time during which you're reading a novel, you're acknowledging the supremacy of this text, even if, of course, you own your own interpretation of it, and I think that there's something healthy about the scale of that activity for somebody in his position of power.
GROSS: Well, I'd really like our listeners to hear a sense of your writing. So I'm going to ask you to do a reading from page 23, and this is right after September 11th. You remember, the couple has just moved to New York a few years ago, and his wife decides that she's going to take their four-year-old son and move back to London because it's just so unsafe in New York, and the husband, your main character, offers to come too, and this is where the reading picks up.
Mr. O'NEILL: The ashtray rustled as she stubbed out her cigarette. Let's not make too many big decisions, my wife said. We might come to regret it. We'll think more clearly in a month or two.
Much of the subsequent days and nights were spent in an agony of emotions and options and discussions. It is truly a terrible thing when questions of love and family and home are no longer answerable.
We talked about Rachel giving up her job or going part time, about moving to Brooklyn or Westchester or, what the hell, New Jersey, but that didn't meet the problem of Indian Point. There was, apparently, a nuclear reactor at a place called Indian Point, just 30 miles away in Westchester County. If something bad happened there, we were constantly being informed, the radioactive debris, whatever this might be, was liable to rain down on us. Indian Point - the earliest, most incurable apprehension stirred in its very name.
Then there was the question of dirty bombs. Apparently any fool could build a dirty bomb and explode it in Manhattan. How likely was this? Nobody knew. Very little about anything seemed intelligible or certain, and New York itself, that ideal source for the metropolitan diversion that serves as a response to the largest futilities, took on a fearsome, monstrous nature whose reality might have befuddled Plato himself.
We were trying, as I irrelevantly analyzed it, to avoid what might be termed a historic mistake. We were trying to understand, that is, whether we were in a pre-apocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the '30s or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic, like that of the Cold War inhabitants of New York, London, Washington, and for that matter Moscow.
GROSS: You know, that question you ask at the end, I always, always wonder about that. How do people know? For instance, how do the Jews know in Nazi Germany that it's time to get out, like right before it's too late. How do they know? How do the people in any war situation know when it's time to flee? Did that question go through your mind after September 11? You, like your character, had moved to New York in 1998.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yes, I think - I mean, I lived in New York City and still do, in Manhattan, at the time of the attacks, and I think everybody at that time was utterly disoriented and very much concerned about whether or not it would be safe to stay in New York City.
I mean, we really had no idea where this had come from, and it was pretty clear that the, you know, the authorities had very little idea of what was going on as well, and I think that in addition to trying to understand the questions of personal safety, you're also, and this is a very challenging issue, you're also in the position of coming to terms with the fragility and vulnerability of the individual conscience in the face of history.
GROSS: After 9/11, when his wife decides she's going to take her son and move back to London and be in a safer place, and your main character, the husband, stays alone in New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel because their apartment in Tribeca is no longer inhabitable because of 9/11, you have a great description of him being just, like, depressed and immobilized by depression. You write: On my own, it was as if I were hospitalized at the Chelsea Hotel.
It was such a great image, your room is like a hospital. Can you talk a little bit about coming up with that?
Mr. O'NEILL: I think that I remember one guy that I met at the Chelsea, where I live, which is where I live with my family, once observed to me that this place is a hospital for creatives. That's a quote. And I liked the idea, and of course hospitalization has a very pronounced medical connotation, but it also has a non-medical connotation of refuge, and that is one of the features of the Chelsea Hotel, which is that is has served as a refuge for certain vulnerable spirits over the years.
GROSS: Can you tell us what the initial idea was for you novel, like where it started in your mind?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I came to New York in '98 like the narrator of this novel, and I began - and I wanted to play cricket. It was May, 1998, and cricket is a sport I've played every summer of my life since the age of 10, and so I asked people, you know, where can I play cricket, and of course nobody knew, and it took a while to track down these cricket clubs, the cricket scene of New York, which is invisible and almost impenetrable because the clubs are not very accessible. And it dawned on me that this was a potentially - a dramatically and symbolically interesting situation, this cricket world, this unknown cricket world.
And so I sort of formed the idea at that point that there was a novel here and started working on it, and then 9/11 happened, and then this sort of history and current events became superimposed on this slightly more literary starting point.
GROSS: The cricket community that your character finds, which I assume is the same community that you found, is a community of immigrants playing cricket from South Asia. You're - one of the main characters is from Trinidad, and I always thought of cricket - I don't know much about cricket - but I always thought of it as this very British, very white sport, and it is so not a white sport in the immigrant community that you describe who, you know, that plays cricket in New York.
So through playing cricket, what are some of the people, what's some of the world that you were introduced to that you otherwise would not have had access to?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I mean, it certainly is - it's certainly - without my own personal participation in this pastime, I would not have had access to, you know, the world of the West Indian and South Asian immigrants in New York City.
I don't want to kind of over-romanticize the whole idea of intercultural contact. This is, you know, we're playing a sport together, and if cricket had been played by a bunch of reactionary white guys, I imagine I would have continued playing anyway. But for novelistic purposes, what's interesting about cricket is that - is its very incomprehensibility in American culture and its very invisibility, so that there's a character that says there's a limit to what Americans understand, and that limit is cricket.
But it did seem to me that to insert cricket in an American novel is effectively to confront the American reader with the other, with the alien, and to challenge the reader in, I hope, an agreeable and enjoyable way with an expansion of, you know, of his or her horizons and with the consideration of what it might mean to expand those horizons.
GROSS: What got you thinking about the whole rags-to-riches self-invention American story and how easy or difficult it is to actually achieve that as an immigrant in America and what immigrants in America really are up against?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I actually think that immigrants have a much better chance of rags to riches than people who are born here, who are born in the rags side of that equation, I mean, there's very little, there's surprisingly little social mobility in the United States for people who are born here, and whereas the immigrants who arrive are self-selecting, go-getting, motivated types on the whole, and almost by definition, in fact.
GROSS: Because they managed to get out of the country. They found a way to get here. They've managed to figure out a way to survive here. Is that what you mean?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I mean, you don't - I mean, it's such an enormous step to leave your country and start again, all over again, in another country. It's very rarely that you get people arriving from another part of the world saying it's my ambition to go to the United States and do nothing.
You would only get that fraction of the population which takes seriously the question of material progress and the question of doing something with your life and the question of improving one's lot that actually arrives here.
So it's - my basic starting point in relation to immigration is that every time a new face shows up, that's great news. It means the country has received a fresh shot of energy.
GROSS: There's an image that I'd like to talk about in your book that I think will really resonate with people who have lost one or both of their parents but who have lost parents who lived far away and who they didn't get to see often, and this is what your main character thinks after his mother dies, and the main character lives in New York. His mother had lived in Holland, and he says, I did not summon her up by the way of remembrance but rather by fantasy. The fantasy did not consist of imagining her physically at my side but of imagining her at a long distance, as before, and me still remotely swaddled in her consideration.
I just think that's so interesting, that what he's holding onto isn't images of them together but of knowing that she's thinking of him and that she's there, even if it's at a distance.
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, Hans - I mean, one of the great dramas in Hans's life, and one of the sources of the rather melancholic view of the world which suffuses this book, is that his mother has died, and he is doing his best to mourn her without, I think he feels, any real acknowledgment from his wife or indeed from anybody as to what this involves.
But the mourning is complicated by the thought which he states in the novel. He says: But soon a more disquieting idea took possession of my thoughts, namely that my mother had long ago become an imaginary being of sorts, which is to say that the separation which they - which characterized their relationship for a long period of time consigned her to the place of memory rather than to actuality, and he suspects the same was true in her case, so that she remembered him as a little boy rather than this large, lumbering grownup.
GROSS: My guest is Joseph O'Neill, author of the novel, "Netherland." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph O'Neill. He's the author of the bestselling novel "Netherland."
Before you became a novelist, you were a barrister in England, and I think a lot of us Americans don't really understand, is a barrister a lawyer? Is a barrister something different than a lawyer? Would you explain?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, the English, and indeed Irish, legal professions is divided into two - the solicitors, who do 90 percent of the work and most of it non-contentious, so that if you want a will done, etcetera, you go see a solicitor; and then if things look like they're heading towards court, then you bring in the barrister, and the barrister is the one with the wig and the gown. And so I was one of those characters who has a wig and a gown and goes to court and argues cases in court. That's a barrister.
GROSS: This is going to sound like such a stupid question. Does it feel silly to put on that wig?
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Mr. O'NEILL: Actually, no. There's nothing - I mean, these wigs are made of horse hair, and they're never washed, and they're kept in a tin so that when you open your tin, your wig-tin, as it's called, which has your name on it, you know, this rather distinctive smell is released, and it's the smell of, you know, of the courtroom. And so (unintelligible) you have this kind of slightly sort of rather sickening and distasteful kind of Proustian or Pavlovian relationship with this smell, so that as soon as you open your wig-tin, your adrenaline starts running, and you kind of get ready for court.
I mean, it is a bit scratchy, and it can get a bit itchy, and it's quite funny when you see older barristers who have been doing it for many years, you know, because they look like - because these wigs gradually start to disintegrate, and you never replace them. So it looks like a sort of dead rat is on their heads after a while.
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. You're making it sound really horrible. So why is this is an institution that is still kept, you know, the institution of the wig?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I think there are very practical reasons for preserving the custom of wearing a wig, which is only worn, incidentally, in some legal court - in some courtrooms and in some situations, not in all of them. I mean the main one being that it neutralizes and equalizes the physical appearance of the advocates, and it also adds to the gravity of the occasion.
I mean, and it seems to me that, you know, it's so - we live in a world of, in particular now, where it's so difficult to locate any situation of gravity or any situation when authority is able to hold sway that I don't think it - I don't think it does any harm to have a little prop which makes the whole thing seem quite solemn. And in fact, I think that if they've done - you know, they've asked the lawyers and they've asked the people who use - you know, their clients, the people who are the consumers of justice, whether they want to preserve the wig and the gown, then they all say yes. I think they like, they like a bit of - they like the costume drama of it.
GROSS: So in spite of the fact that it smelled and it itched, you liked the sense of authority and occasion that it brought to your work.
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I mean, you know, I took all that for granted. I just - yeah, I mean, I think, you know, it's like the smell of gunpowder. You know, you put on the wig and you know that you get ready to do battle. And you know, it's not just the wig, by the way. You have to put on a little - you have to put on a stiff collar and the little bands, they're called, these two little white rectangles which sort of serve as a kind of necktie, and then you wear your gown on top of your suit, and off you go.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joseph O'Neill. He's the author of the bestselling novel "Netherland."
There's a scene at the Department of Motor Vehicles in which you decide - in New York - in which you describe how, like, really kind of sullen a lot of the people who work there are. And I grew up in New York, and I remember the DMV, which was then the Motor Vehicles Bureau, in Brooklyn was just such an unpleasant place. And your character fails his drivers test the first time around, and I failed my permit test the first time around, and I had just, like, graduated high school, and you know, I had done well on tests in school, and I failed my permit test, and I felt so incredibly stupid, you know?
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Mr. O'NEILL: Are you talking about your written test?
GROSS: The written test. I failed it.
Mr. O'NEILL: Oh my God. That's shameful. Is this the first time you've confessed this?
GROSS: On the air, certainly.
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GROSS: But so how did you feel when you failed your driving test? I don't know if you actually…
Mr. O'NEILL: I regret to say - I regret to say that this is a slightly autobiographical part of the story. You know, one of the sort of black comedies of New York immigrant life is that, you know, you arrive in New York City. You've been driving for many, many years without incident, and then when you come here you're essentially forced to do your test all over again. And me, I and very - and many other people in my situation, you know, we go down to this place in Red Hook, and we are all promptly failed, as if we can't drive. And you know, and infuriatingly, you see these 16-year-olds, sort of shaking 16-year-olds sort of triumphantly waving their documents around.
And what I and my friends ended up doing, after I sort of cracked it, is you basically sort of leave. You don't do it in Brooklyn, in Red Hook. You have to go to somewhere more reasonable, in the suburbs or the exurbs of New York, and they're much more likely to give you - recognize the fact that you can drive up there.
GROSS: Why is that?
Mr. O'NEILL: I don't know. I mean there were probably - I wonder whether the whole New York driving test system is run on a kind of - whether they get paid every time they - you know, in other words, if you fail somebody three times, you get paid three times, whether it's just a job-creation scheme.
But I, like Hans, you know, I just drove around the block once, and I was told that I'd failed a million times. It was just terrifying. I mean - I think it was actually slightly devastating.
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GROSS: Well, I enjoyed that part in the book. I'm glad you put it in. Joseph O'Neill, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. O'NEILL: My great pleasure.
GROSS: Joseph O'Neill is the author of the novel "Netherland." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.