Joseph O'Neill, The New Immigrant ExperienceAuthor Joseph O'Neill says the meaning of nationality and nationhood have changed dramatically in the past two decades. He should know: Raised in Holland, the half-Irish, half-Turkish author of Netherland now lives with his family in New York City.
During this week of Thanksgiving — the most American of holidays — NPR is spending time thinking about what it means to become an American. The answers come from three noted authors — Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Joseph O'Neill — who've written about newcomers to the United States.
Author Joseph O'Neill knows a thing or two about shifting identity and geography: Raised in Holland, the half-Irish, half-Turkish author of Netherland now lives with his family in New York City.
O'Neill tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that the meaning of nationality and nationhood have changed dramatically in the past two decades. The age of globalization has led to what O'Neill calls an "enormous collapse in the idea of migration."
"It used to be the case that for an Irishman to come to the U.S. involved a perilous journey on a ship," O'Neill says. "It involved singing lots of songs before you left saying goodbye, and once you were in the U.S., it involved singing lots of songs about how you were never going to set foot in Ireland again."
Not so anymore. Nowadays, says O'Neill, the transfer of people from country to country is less decisive: "You can go backwards and forwards as much as you like, subject to legal and financial restrictions. And you can stay in touch with everyone back home. You can read their blogs, you can speak to them on the phone."
The ease of movement has resulted in the emergence of fused and blurred identities, says O'Neill.
"One of the great pluses of being an immigrant is you get to start again in terms of your identity," he says. "You get to shed the narratives which cling to you."
O'Neill says he found America to be a welcoming place, where people were less inclined to make judgments based on race or class — but also not particularly interested in learning about his background.
"As long as you show willingness, they are prepared to stick the label of 'American' on you," he says.
The immigrant experience carries over into O'Neill's fiction. The protagonist of Netherland is an immigrant from Trinidad whose effort to make his fortunes in his new homeland is inspired by the classic American rags-to-riches narrative.
"[There's a] specific narrative in American life, which essentially authorizes people to do whatever it takes to climb up by their bootstraps and to make something of themselves. Even if it means cutting corners from time to time," O'Neill says.
The strategy is so obvious, so inevitable, you wonder why it took so long for a writer to carry it out. I'm talking about the idea to write a novel about post-Sept. 11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.Gatsby is the great American novel about dreaming, overreaching and loss, but many people forget that it's also a great novel about New York City, which stands in for the idea of America in the novel.
Remember that immortal ending where our wistful narrator, Nick Carraway, says that when the "green breast" of the New World — Manhattan — appeared before Dutch sailors' eyes, it was the last time in history when man beheld an object "commensurate with his capacity to wonder"? It's all over, Carraway is saying in that ending — the Age of Discovery, the vision of America as a land of boundless potential, the Roaring Twenties promise of New York City. It's finished, kaput. We live in a permanent state of aftermath. Which is where Joseph O'Neill's marvelous novel Netherland begins.
Our narrator here is, loosely speaking, a latter-day "Dutch sailor" washed up on the ragged shores of lower Manhattan. Hans van den Broek is an equities analyst whose English wife, Rachel, has left him and gone back to England, taking their young son with her. In the shuddering wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Rachel tells Hans that she's been questioning "the narrative of [their] marriage." He, in turn, burrows into a dank apartment in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, longtime home to suicidal rock stars and other desolation angels of the city. Through a fluke encounter with a cab driver, the drifting Hans is drawn into the fraternity of cricket players in New York City.
Hans had played the sport as a child in Holland, but he discovers that in contemporary New York, the leagues are populated by tribes of all nations. His teammates are from Trinidad, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Guyana — Hans, in short, is the only paleface among them. He strikes up a friendship of sorts with an umpire, a Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon thinks big: He harbors an ambition to erect a giant state-of-the-art cricket field on the grounds of the derelict Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The listless Hans gets caught up in this fantasy, but as he becomes more entangled with Ramkissoon, he discovers that, like Jay Gatsby, Chuck Ramkissoon is yet another flowering of that all-American hybrid: the go-getter with the soul of a dreamer disastrously crossed with the brain of a con man.
If you're going to invoke Gatsby as often as O'Neill does in Netherland (and, by the way, catching all those references to ferry boats, Jewish frontmen and death by drowning is, undeniably, part of the insider fun of reading this novel), you'd better be able to acquit yourself honorably against the sheer gorgeousness of Fitzgerald's prose. O'Neill does — and, believe me, I can't think of many novelists I would put within spitting distance of Fitzgerald. O'Neill is a wide-ranging stylist capable of whipping out unexpected but precisely right words like "peregrinating." He's also adroit at muted comedy, as when Hans looks at Ramkissoon's hairy chest and spots "a necklace's gold drool."
But where O'Neill really soars is in his appreciation of the shadowy spaces in and around New York City. Like Fitzgerald, O'Neill is a poet of retrospection — a mood that suits both Hans in his depression and New York City directly after Sept. 11. Hence, we're treated here to haunting descriptions of the aforementioned Floyd Bennett Field, its runways overgrown with grass and ghosts of dashing aviators; Green-Wood Cemetery, with its graves of Tiffanys and Steinways; and even lowly Flatbush Avenue, which Hans describes as being crammed with hole-in-the-wall premises "devoted to the beautification ... of those body parts that continue to thrive after death: ... hair palaces, nail palaces, barbershops, African hair-braiding specialists, [and] wig and hairpiece suppliers ... ."
In the decades since its publication, The Great Gatsby itself has become something of a "green light" for novelists — a literary ideal to be reached for but never quite grasped. O'Neill in Netherland runs faster, stretches out his arms farther and approaches the glow of greatness.