A refreshed malign weariness  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

I am reading, with two friends, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a novel set in New York City in the years immediately following the World Trade Center attacks. I haven’t gotten very far—only about thirty pages, actually—so this more like a report along the way than a review. I’m already hooked, which is always a good sign, drawn into the lives of Hans and Rachel van den Broek, and their son, Jake, and Hans’ friend, Chuck Ramkissoon whom he met while playing cricket in a city park.

Hans and his wife had recently moved to New York from London, and then were forced to move into a hotel room when the Trade Towers collapsed. Their apartment is shrouded in dust, and though their jobs are secure, life, their relationship, their sense of belonging in New York are all now shrouded with uncertainty. Rachel tells Hans she is returning to London with Jake.

I felt my wife sit up. It would only be for a while, she said in a low voice. Just to get some perspective on things. She would move in with her parents and give Jake some attention. He needed it. Living like this, in a crappy hotel, in a city gone mad, was doing him no good: had I noticed how clinging he’d become? I could fly over every fortnight; and there was always the phone. She lit a cigarette. She’d started smoking again, after an interlude of three years. She said, “It might even do us some good.”

It is Hans’ voice we hear in Netherland as the narration unfolds. But it was the next paragraph that caught my attention. In it Hans lifts the veil, as it were, so we can see more deeply into their lives. And as he provides a glimpse into this tiny slice of the reality in which they live, he also allows us greater clarity about the world in which we all move and have our being day by day:

There was another silence. I felt, above all, tired. Tiredness: if there was a constant symptom of the disease in our lives at this time, it was tiredness. At work we were unflagging; at home the smallest gesture of liveliness was beyond us. Mornings we awoke into a malign weariness that seemed only to have refreshed itself overnight. Evenings, after Jake had been put to bed, we quietly ate watercress and translucent noodles that neither of us could find the strength to remove from their cartons; took turns to doze in the bathtub; and failed to stay awake for the duration of a TV show. Rachel was tired and I was tired. A banal state of affairs, yes—but our problems were banal, the stuff of women's magazines. All lives, I remember thinking, eventually funnel into the advice columns of women’s magazines.

[Excerpted from Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (New York, NY: Vintage Books; 2008) pp. 22-23.]

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