(Image via New York Magazine's Vulture.)
(The conclusion of our interview with Joseph O'Neill. Tomorrow, we'll be giving away a copy of the paperback edition of Netherland.)
TEV: You described yourself as a conventional soul. How so?
Joseph O’Neill: You know, my socks match. Have I – when did I say that?
TEV: In the Telegraph piece that just ran.
Joseph O’Neill: Oh. Well, I suppose I am conventional.
TEV: Well I know I am. But I’m accused of that all the time.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. Who’s unconventional, in a relevant context?
TEV: I don’t know, I suppose people would say William T. Vollman is unconventional and imagine that people thought David Foster Wallace was unconventional.
Joseph O’Neill: Frankly, anyone who is a novelist is almost by definition conventional. The idea that you create a body of words, a lengthy body of words, in the hope that people will read it, is conventional.
Also, almost any novel posits all sorts of conventional binary oppositions: reader-writer, creator-consumer, eyes-page. There are all sorts of pre-set structures. So, in other words, it’s very hard for writers to be unconventional, except within the very narrow ambit of literary considerations. And even then it’s practically impossible.
TEV: Sort of conventional unconventionality?
Joseph O’Neill: I’m all in favor of the renewal of the form. I just think that the problem with ‘conventional’ is that it’s an analytically meaningless word – it’s either a specific word, meaning reliant on convention, which everybody is. Or it’s a pejorative word, which is cheap.
TEV: You seemed to be using it self-deprecatingly.
Joseph O’Neill: I can’t have been talking about myself as a writer…
TEV: No, I think it was mainly living arrangements and styles and the way one lives.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. I suppose I am conventional in those terms.
TEV: It’s not a pejorative term in this question.
Joseph O’Neill: Now, if someone says, “A is a conventional writer,” what you are politely saying is, “Don’t bother reading A. He or she is terribly dull.”
TEV: No originality.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah.
TEV: How long have you lived at the Chelsea Hotel. And how have, if at all, have they reacted to being immortalized?
Joseph O’Neill: The Chelsea Hotel was immortalized long before I ever turned up.
TEV: That’s true, but they’ve gotten a new wave of attention.
Joseph O’Neill: Well if anything, I’ve mortalized it, because the hotel seems to be heading rapidly downhill. I’ve lived there since ’98, though we had an interlude in Brooklyn for a year and a half. And I love the hotel, it’s sort of a little village inside Manhattan.
TEV: Why do you think there is a resistance among young, American writers to what you have called the lyrical moment?
Joseph O’Neill: I don’t know, actually. If there is, it may be because it’s so hard to write.
TEV: So, we’re lazy?
Joseph O’Neill: No, I mean that if it were the case that everyone could write a so-called lyrical novel if they wanted to but had decided against it, then their resistance to it has authority. But is that really the case? I doubt it very much.
Take Zadie Smith, for example, who is resistant to the lyrical realist novel at the moment. I think she’s allowed to be, because she’s actually written that way in her last book, and has kind of shown that she can do it and has come away from it with reservations. She’s earned her resistance.
That said, there are a lot of critics, or readers, who don’t have a taste for so-called lyrical writing and can’t be expected to write lyrically before they voice a negative opinion about it. And again, you can’t really argue with taste. If people prefer to read something else, that’s fine.
You’ve mentioned this resistance of younger Americans, who are you thinking of, in particular?
TEV: No one necessarily in particular, really. Rather, I was thinking back to your comments about American writers under 65 and coupling that with things that you talked about in your interview about the lyrical moment. It seems to me like there is a nexus of those of those concerns.
Joseph O’Neill: Yes.
TEV: Because I agree with you. It’s interesting that you have brought up Zadie Smith because I was going to ask about her next. I think that a lot of people draw the wrong kind of conclusions with a piece like the one that she wrote. I think that it sets up some false oppositions. I feel like this form of the novel is capacious enough to accommodate all different styles
Joseph O’Neill: Yes.
TEV: And the notion that one has to chose between Netherland or Remainder just seems silly. I liked Remainder a great deal, as well. I don’t feel that they’re mutually exclusive, that one must declare an allegiance.
Joseph O’Neill: I’d actually read and liked Remainder before that piece. And I thought it was a perfectly good piece of writing. I’m not sure I would describe it as unconventional, not least because that description, as I’ve said, would not mean very much.
TEV: Yes. But I think that some of the sentiments that she expresses hold sway among this younger generation of writers, whether it’s people coming out of the McSweeney’s School or the purveyors of the uber-ironic, the tendency toward a hip nihilism or something like that that. That they mistrust, in essence, the idea of a beautiful sentence. Some people find that corny, the notion of a beautiful sentence.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, it depends on how you define them as beautiful. I mean, you know, Foster Wallace wrote many beautiful sentences. I mean, there’s nothing but beautiful sentences in his work. Even though he had a particular way of doing it. What makes a sentence beautiful, for me, is its conscientiousness. A hip, ironic sensibility is not necessarily conscientious. Neither is a sensibility that latches on to dusks and dawns and roses.
TEV: You spoke in the The Guardian of “going for it” in Netherland. I’d like you talk a little bit more about what that really means.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, it means that I just wanted to write something that I felt I wasn’t controlling. I wanted to write something that I couldn’t write. And so, simply on a level of language, and a level of attentiveness, I tried to concentrate a lot more. I mean, my default mode is comedy and I can write a comic novel very quickly, and I decided not to do that. I was going to try something harder, less natural to me. And also, not shrinking from politics and New York. If you think about it, writing about New York is a crazy idea.
TEV: Such a rich tradition exists before you …
Joseph O’Neill: Exactly. Why not reinvent the wheel while you’re at it?
TEV: What do you make of labels like post-colonial, post-9/11 and other things thrown around the book?
Joseph O’Neill: I think they’re fine. I think they reflect the fact that people are engaged by the book. People are entitled to attach whatever label they want. Of course, they may not always conform to my labels.
TEV: And what would your labels be?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, I’m not labeling. I’m not going there.
TEV: Do you know anything about your next book yet?
Joseph O’Neill: I know something important about my next book, yes. I know two very important things about my next book.
TEV: I can’t imagine the things you’d care to share.
Joseph O’Neill: Once your tape is off, I’ll tell you about it.
TEV: All right, I’ll get to tease my readers. How do you find literary celebrity? I mean, I know it’s a loaded and diminished term in its way.
Joseph O’Neill: If literary celebrity means sitting at the Getty Center, having a nice lunch and staring out at whatever it is I’m staring at over here, the green hills of L.A., I’d have to say, it’s extremely agreeable. What was it that Updike said about celebrity being a mask that eats at the face of its wearer? I would say that obscurity—I’m talking about long-term, grown-up obscurity—has the same effect, only far worse. Obscurity really is a killer.
TEV: I was thinking more in terms of the company you keep. You’ve mentioned you hang out mostly with cricket players. Has your literary circle expanded as a result of this? Do you make more time with writers?
Joseph O’Neill: I hang out with cricket players on summer weekends; that’s pretty much it. I don’t want to overstate that side of things. I’ve met some writers at readings. I don’t come from that world of creative writing schools and the communities springing out of that. And I don’t come from that background of having readers from an early age, which so many well-known writers do. I marveled at that piece in the New Yorker about Ian McEwan’s 60th birthday. What basically transpires is that his lifelong friends have been Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Salman Rushdie. And there they are like the Three Musketeers, plus D’Artagnan, in this famous photograph of the four of them together. And at the same wedding, Christopher Hitchens rolls in and Zadie Smith, too, and tying it all together is this amazing web of literary fame, that ... well ... I doubt very much that my 60th birthday will be celebrated in the same way. If I’m lucky enough to reach that age.
TEV: Is there any possibility that the success of Netherland will bring your early books back into print?
Joseph O’Neill: They’ve gone back into print in the UK, this summer.
TEV: Nothing in the U.S. yet?
Joseph O’Neill: I think Blood-Dark Track is supposed to come back. I believe that the idea is to wait until this book has had its day and then bring the others back. I think that they fear that I’m going to spend many years between now and my next book.
TEV: So, they want to space them out?
Joseph O’Neill: Yes, they want to space them out -- the rather dubious pleasures of my early novels. Which of course I can’t bring myself to read a word of. Who wrote them?
TEV: James Wood, whom we were discussing earlier, has written about reliably unreliably narrators versus unreliably reliable narrators, placing more of a premium on the second one. This unreliable narrator who we sense is discovering as we are when -- I think that James Jones (from the first novel, This Is the Life) feels very much the first kind of quintessentially reliably unreliable narrator, whereas Hans seems this idealized second type. How do you approach this question of narrator reliability?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, the moment you have the first person narrator, it’s almost inevitable that the narrator is going to be unreliable. Unless you think you have created a superhuman type who is capable only of correctly analyzing the world. There’s an inherent ambiguity in the first person; you always have to ask yourself, “Who’s telling me the story?” And the more apparently reliable the narrator, the better in a way. Because the unreliability, as I think Wood suggests, becomes much more interesting, and certainly truer to the philosophical murk which lies beneath the white page.
TEV: If you accept, and you may not accept this as a premise, that writers have one or two great themes that obsess them. What would you say yours are? And feel free to reject the premise, entirely.
Joseph O’Neill: I don’t actually have the answer to this. I’m not sure that I entirely accept the premise. I mean there are certain things that obviously have to be reckoned with. Death, or essentially, how to attribute meaning to it. Ditto love. And I suppose the form itself—the novel. So, these are concerns that are unavoidable. Apart from that, I don’t know.
TEV: Have you been following the Robert Allen Stanford scandal?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah.
TEV: Do you have any cricket-related thoughts on that controversy unfolding?
Joseph O’Neill: It was pretty obvious to me, early on, that this man was a walking bubble. And now it turns out it seems that he is a deceitful walking bubble, as well. So, I’m not surprised. But it is weird how this book, Netherland, has this absurd relationship with current events. I mean, who could have foreseen that a dodgy American cricket entrepreneur would be in the news? The fates are conspiring in favor of this novel.
TEV: And it keeps renewing itself. Giving you another go.
Joseph O’Neill: I know! It’s great fun.
TEV: How involved will you be, if at all, in the proposed film adaptation? Do you have any interest in that?
Joseph O’Neill: I’m going to be starring in it. I’ll be in the cricket parts.
TEV: Cricket consultant?
Joseph O’Neill: I mean, we’ll see. They’re still looking for a screenwriter.
TEV: So you have no interest in taking that on?
Joseph O’Neill: Absolutely not.
TEV: My last question is do you really think American’s can’t understand cricket? And, do you watch baseball at all?
Joseph O’Neill: I do watch baseball. I do understand it.
TEV: How do you find baseball?
Joseph O’Neill: I love baseball.
TEV: You do?
Joseph O’Neill: I love baseball, even though it’s the DOS-mode of cricket: “Are you having trouble downloading? Do you want the slower version?”
TEV: Does it seem unendurably slow to you?
Joseph O’Neill: No, baseball is not slower in terms of its activity. But it’s definitely a simpler bat and ball game.
TEV: Have you been to the cricket fields here in Van Nuys?
Joseph O’Neill: No, I haven’t.
TEV: It’s funny, after I read your book, I was talking to an Australian writer friend of mine. And I found that there is a cricket patch here in Van Nuys and I said, “Ok, you’ve got to take me out there one afternoon and explain it to me so that I can watch this game and see how it works.” And he promised he would but he said he’s been out there once or twice and it’s rather depressing. It’s a very shabby little patch of earth.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. You just don’t have real cricket fields in the United States. Except in Philadelphia, where the old cricket clubs these days have a cricket festival for a week or so in the springtime. Then the tennis nets come back up again.
TEV: Let me rephrase the question, do you think Americans can understand cricket?
Joseph O’Neill: Yes.
TEV: It’s not beyond us?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, I’m American now.
TEV: You’re a legacy case, you bring the knowledge with you.
Joseph O’Neill: I think they could understand. I think that Barack Obama certainly could.
TEV: Well, if Barack Obama picks up cricket, then you your book will really have its future sealed.
(Note: This interview was conducted well before President Obama added Netherland to his reading list. This concludes our talk with Joseph O'Neill but please do come back tomorrow when we'll be giving away a copy of the new paperback edition of Netherland.)