By: pbcmedia

Dec 08 2008

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Category: anxiety, Art, Artists, Creativity, writing


Focal Length:85mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:Canon EOS 5D

I read a novel this weekend, titled “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neil.

His jacket cover was an illustration obviously inspired by the painting of “Sunday in the Park” by Georges Seurat.   The illustration had a park with a New York skyline featuring a cricket game with spectators on the side and a tree that arches over the field.  After you finish the novel, you recognize the spectators, the reason for the unusual choice of a cricket field, and one female spectator, in particular, who is seated in a wooden chair at a small wooden writing table.   Rather than looking at the game going on, she is absorbed in writing and not until the end do you realize she helped her son write the last sentence of this stunning novel.

To describe my experience reading this book, I have to segue to abstract art for a moment.  Brian O’Doherty, a writer and artist, talked about Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings as an “emptying out” and a taking in of color and paragraphs of shapes.  At first, he said, reporting on a conversation he’d had with Rothko, the shapes and colors you take in might articulate themselves as weighty but, suddenly, at some point in the act of contemplation, they become aerie light.

This was the course of my reading of this novel.

It is a disturbing book to read which I now think may have accounted for a day long bout with a migraine complex of physical symptoms that always bring me to a dead stop accompanied by a terribly unwell, nauseous and sense of doom feeling.  Yet, I kept on reading, not connecting it with the beautiful sentences of this book.  He is incapable, as one reviewer noted, of writing a dull sentence.  I read on.

It was not because of any specific iconic images of 9/11,  because there were none of those, but it is about a couple in New York City, post 9/11, and the netherland of dreams and fear left behind from childhood, as well as historic events, that become a silent subtle compass in our lives.    This novel articulates almost subliminally this region of force that is rarely in focus but always present, altering our choices as surely as physics defines the course of a ball in flight.

It was only in reading the final paragraphs, and in fact, the final sentence of this novel on Saturday night that I felt my malaise lifting.   It  occurred to me then, for the first time, that the arc of this migraine truly did begin on Friday when I first opened the book.

Hardly an author’s dream review, I understand, but true nonetheless.

My experience of this novel is as one could experience a Rothko painting–It articulated itself as weighty upon being first taken in,  and then, suddenly, at the end, but only at the very last end, aerie like lightness that makes the reader weightless and, in my case, also migraine free.

The next day, feeling much better, I began E.L. Doctorow’s book of essays about acts of creation (The Creationists) and right there in the first page was what I suspect had happened to Joseph O’Neil in his writing of this book and  certainly to me in the reading of it.

If I was the wonderful Ellen Wachtel from my favorite weekly podcast called “Writer’s & Company” produced by CBC, I would ask O’Neil directly,  “Did E.L. Doctorow have it right when he said this:

Whereever fiction begins, whether in the music of the words or an impelling anger, in a historic event or the importunate hope of a justly rendered composition of one’s own life, the work itself is hard and slow and the writer’s illumination becomes  a taskmaster, a ruling discipline, jealously guarding the mind from all other and necessarily errant private excitements until the book is done, the script is finished.  You live enslaved in the piece’s language, its diction, its universe of imagery, and there is no way out except through the last sentence.”

If  O’Doherty is even remotely right that art is an emptying out, then we need to send care packages to Joseph O’Neil, (who lives in New York) as I believe he emptied himself, and the rest of us, forever changed by events beyond our control, both childhood and historical events, right out onto these 256 pages.

Oh, yes–there is this, too:  although I truly understand this is not an author’s dream review–to be associated with the suffering of a migraine–I’d like to suggest that if he does a paperback edition, I think this photograph I took this morning before the sun came up would be perfect and might settle a reader’s  stomach for the voyage ahead.

©Pat Coakley 2008


15 comments on “Netherland”

  1. I love that photo. It’s almost painterly. :-)

  2. this is such good writing about reading and writing, it makes me want to read that book, which doesnt happen very often as you may remember i hardly ever read anything, but this brings the experience of reading into the foreground in a way that makes me want in, thankyou

  3. Sometimes I wonder why you & I like eachother so much.

    I just read this thorough, insightful view of the book and your thoughts.

    Me? I just put down the latest copy of the Amazing Spider Man.

    What the?

    I have this tendency to associate movies with sicknesses sometimes. I had my worst toothache (yes, i’ve had that many) while watching Canadian Bacon. Every time I see that title, my teeth hurt.

    The funny thing is… that may have happened if I didn’t have a toothache. It stunk. Peeee-yew!

    Wonderful picture as usual, by the by.

  4. Thank you, arteest. I wish I could paint! But, looking at a recent canvas, part of a babysitting stint, even six year olds say, “Hmmm. Pappy? That’s not so good.”

    Tipota, now, I was afraid this would drive people away from the book! So, your response makes me smile.

    Pomeroy: oh, see? Amazing spider man?..I am wiping my eyes. I have no doubt as to why I like you so much: you bring the goofy and can break my heart at the same time. There wasn’t one laugh in this book

    Hmmm…maybe I’ll do a new review! Nah, one migraine blog entry is enough for now.

    Canadian Bacon?? And, you balked at Ghost Dad?

  5. A book that gave you a headache?! I am so adding this to my reading list . . .

  6. I just read the review of this book and made a note to order it when I make my next Amazon sweep. Now I will for sure.
    Not that I want the headache.
    But aren’t we drawn to the terrible, and bypassing it as a voyeur makes us feel safe for that moment.

    Great photo- in focus, in blur.

  7. Tysdaddy, let me know after you read it, OK?
    Bonnie, the interesting thing is though my voyeur nature has insisted on bypassing, it rarely makes me feel safe in the long run. I’m liking these reed photos myself! Thanks and let me know if you read it, OK?

  8. The photo has a very calming effect on me. It’s wonderful.

    I can’t help but see this location as a transitional area: the border between what we are and will eventually be. Shaking off the mortal coil, finding what lies beyond the focus…

  9. This deserves to be on someone’s wall.

  10. Oh Pat, I know a lot of people who would rather skip this book, fearing it will evoke some emotions. Just like those who – when going to an art show – only want to look at pretty flowery pictures and avoid the artwork that is more moody and emotional. Me? I’m going to look for this book!

    And the photo is absolutely beautiful – that little touch of purple and orange is brilliant!

  11. Mt. Brooks, I’m totally stealing how you view this location, word for word. How beautifully stated and exactly true.

    Russ: Find me a sugardaddy with a wall!! You make me laugh.

    Nava: you are exactly right about how some will pass on this book as on other pieces of art. And, that little touch of purple and orange?? The rising sun thanks you very much for the compliment.

  12. I love the photo and am very tempted to read that book. However, reading usually induces my migraines as well. BUT, I just had a very deep conversation with my best friend about the subtle and not so subtle effects of 9/11 so the topic is fresh on my mind.

  13. Actually, I went to see Gremlins 2, Betsy’s Wedding & Ghost Dad with her.

    If I saw a Pauly Shore movie, she would win for the girl that had me see the worst movies ever.

  14. Conni, sometimes I can read with a migraine, sometimes not. I’ve never had a book induce one before. I’m still not absolutely sure but it sure is suspicious.

    Ok. Paul Shore? Seriously, I’m so glad to be older. I don’t care how needy I get, it will never involve a Pauly Shore movie. By the way, my almost favorite movie of all time came out on DVD yesterday (I ordered five of them to give as presents!)..The documentary, “Man on Wire” about the Frenchman in the 70’s who “walked” on a tight rope between the twin towers. I’m not kidding when I say I laughed as deeply as I’ve laughed in my life and was enthralled in equal part. Don’t miss it.

  15. Good photo.

    It looks so bleak. As if the life of everything has just drained away with the passing of the warmer seasons.

    The quote, “You live enslaved in the piece’s language,” reminded me of some Spanish music I was listening the other day where, death (muerte) was rhymed with luck (suerte). It made me wonder about how a language sounds and how it’s sounds affect what is written in that language.

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