- Gatsby’s Ghost: Post-Traumatic Memory and National Literary Tradition in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) opens with its narrator’s disclosure of the unexpected origins of the word “aftermath,” a key term in our contemporary lexicon of trauma:
. . . I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word, somebody once told me, refers literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. You might say, if you’re the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists on memory’s repetitive mower—on the purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past back to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course.(4)
By this definition, the first-person narration that composes Netherland qualifies as an “aftermath,” as a “purposeful postmortem” that discloses the equal but opposite impossibilities of remembering and forgetting the past. In attempting to hold the “grassy past” in check, this “second mowing” encourages its regrowth; “memory’s repetitive mower” produces the past precisely by trying to hold it back. In what follows, I will argue, moreover, that the “taint of aftermath” is fundamental to the national and literary traditions that retrodetermine the possibilities of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” (Fitzgerald 180) in this novel of old and new New York. Netherland invokes the shade of a national past shaped by occluded yet foundational violence, a traumatic colonial history that is both insistent and ineffable within the text. And I will argue that the palimpsestic historical [End Page 459] traces that shape this novel of post–9/11 New York are themselves shaped by an American literary tradition that is undeniably melancholic, and which might even be productively understood as post-traumatic.
Which Post-, Which Past?
The violent terrorist events of 9/11 and their personal and national repercussions are neither completely absent from nor fully present within this novel, which focuses on the friendship between a Dutch expatriate and a Trinidadian immigrant who bond in post–9/11 New York over their shared love for the game of cricket. Netherland’s oblique treatment of 9/11 has contributed to its contested status for critics who have attempted to define post–9/11 fiction and what it should and should not do. For example, when Richard Gray indicted 9/11 fiction by U.S.-based writers for retreating into the “emotional entanglements” (134) of its protagonists’ domestic lives, Michael Rothberg proffered Netherland as an exception to the rule of domestic retreat in its “deterritorialized recharting of the ‘altered geographies’ of a ‘mixed, plural’ America” (“Failure” 156). Critics such as Elizabeth S. Anker and Caren Irr, however, have subsequently censured the limitations of Netherland’s engagement with the issue of race in particular and with the public sphere more generally. By contrast with these critical responses, novelist Zadie Smith and critic James Wood shared the opinion that Netherland should not even be considered a post–9/11 novel, despite disagreeing more generally about the literary merits and ideological stance of O’Neill’s novel. In his May 2008 New Yorker review, Wood lavished praise on Netherland, describing it as an “exquisitely written novel . . . and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read.” In her November 2008 New York Review of Books essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” Smith took Netherland to task for seeming so “perfectly done,” arguing that its particular brand of stylistic felicity is incompatible with political right-mindedness: “Netherland is only superficially about September 11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. Its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question [End Page 460] of authenticity. . . . It is absolutely a post-catastrophe novel but the catastrophe isn’t terror, it’s Realism.” Their disagreement about the relationship between the novel’s aesthetics and its politics notwithstanding, Smith and Wood arrived at the same conclusion: “Netherland is only superficially about September 11” (Smith); “[Netherland is] consistently misread as a 9/11 novel” (Wood, “Ten Favorite Books”).