I just read a book that’s been getting rapturous reviews. It is every bit as beautifully written as advertised. There were whole paragraphs that were very WOW inducing.1 I loved parts of it and not just because they were about cricket.2 But I did not enjoy this book.
I will break my usual procedure and name the book: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. I’m naming it because it really is gorgeously written. Seriously, it’s stunning. O’Neill deserves the reviews he’s been getting. I think many people will love it. Hell, many people are loving it. I’m writing this to figure out why it didn’t work for me.
The book’s a realist fictional take on the after effects of 9/11 on a marriage, on the narrator, on the city of NYC, centring around the narrator’s experience playing cricket and getting involved with a shady cricket-obsessed entrepreneur. I loved the descriptions of cricket as well as the discussions of the game and why USians don’t get it. I also loved the sequence in which the narrator attempts to get a NY driver’s license. It’s a deliciously funny and accurate description of city bureaucracy.
Yet, other than those glorious parts, Netherland bored me. I found myself skimming, looking for the next mention of cricket.3 I was not engaged by the passive drifting narrator. Worse, I didn’t care about him. I didn’t care about his marriage. I was bored rigid by his reminiscences about his past. He is so distanced from his life, so flat, that he seemed passionless about everything.
But my biggest problem was that there was no discernible plot. Over the course of 250 pages all the dramatic events happen offstage. The more I read the more frustrated I became. Perhaps, though, that’s the same problem: Because I was uninterested—and eventually came to dislike the narrator—I could not look past the lack of plot.
I love Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It has no plot. It’s about a poor writer stumbling around a city starving. That’s the entire book. What could be more boring? I love that book. There’s way less plot in Hunger than Netherland.
Come to think of it, the likability of the narrator is not that big a deal. The narrator of Hunger isn’t likable. I can think of lots of protags I don’t like, but who are immensely engaging. My problem with Hans is not that I didn’t like him, it’s that I found him and his life boring. Almost every other character in the book is more interesting than Hans and yet it’s his head we’re stuck in.
I tried very hard to like Netherland. I can’t remember the last time I disliked a book that was as good as this one. I suspect quite a few of you will like it. Do ignore me and give it a go!
Have any of you experienced this? Read a book that you didn’t like despite being able to see that it’s really really good?
Note: I have now left the bunker but bits of the bunker are still lodged in my brain. It may be a while yet before I catch up on the crazy email backlog. Or my life. Or anything really.