Worst best book of the year: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
Mon Dec 22 2008
Those who paid attention (hi, Mom!) to the respective year-end top ten lists produced by both myself and TONY Books editor Michael Miller will notice that he and I had no overlap in our lists. None whatsoever (although there would have been if I had gotten through 2666 in time). There wasn't even a best of/worst of crossover like the one instigated by associate music editor Hank Shteamer with his unapologetic support of Axl Rose & Co. The one similarity that I would like to point out between our lists, however, is the mutual eschewing of the novel that critics this year most wanted to make out with: Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. And while I can't speak for Admiral Miller, I can give my own reasons for not asking that most popular of fictional dates to the top ten prom.
I remember receiving a galley of Netherland sometime last year, glancing at the back cover, and then quickly putting it aside, assuming that it would just be a bleak downer of a 9/11 book. Some months later, the first reviews starting coming out, and they were gushing, to say the least. No less a critical literary eminence than James Wood championed the book as some kind of faultless 21st-century New York novel. Obviously, upon reading this dispatch from King James, I immediately dug that prematurely discarded copy out from the cast-off pile of misfit books collecting dust under my desk and read it that very weekend. The verdict? Well, while it turned out that O'Neill's masterwork wasn't the depressing three-ring circus of tragedy that I had originally suspected, there were certain other unsavory characteristics that put me off. For one, I couldn't really think of a good reason why I should give a crap about a wealthy, cricket-playing cold fish of a Dutch banker who mopes around all day in the New York hotel that he calls home. For another... Well, I never really got past the first problem. (Sorry, Mr. Wood.)
Not surprisingly, this dour white-collar protagonist and his silly game of wickets and regular spots of tea appealed greatly to the NYT, and will surely be required reading everywhere for many years to come. But might I suggest another recent novel set in Manhattan as a better way to spend your reading time?