Monday, August 4, 2008

Bright Lights, Big Lonely City

New York City might not be the first place to go if you’re aiming to expand your social sphere, at least judging by two recent novels set there.
Charlie Weir, narrator of British author Patrick McGrath’s Trauma (Knopf), is a Manhattan psychiatrist specializing in post-traumatic stress syndrome. He’s the first to admit that his own troubled childhood is what led him to psychiatry in the first place.
His hot-tempered father abandoned them, and his mother wasn’t exactly a pillar of stability herself. In fact she might be considered Charlie’s first real patient.
Despite outward success, things haven’t really been going so well for Charlie in the intervening years. His marriage has fallen apart after he failed to prevent his Vietnam vet brother-in-law’s suicide.
Charlie’s social circle has dwindled down to occasional visits with his brother Walt’s family, which might be okay if Walt’s basic attitude toward Charlie wasn’t one of ill-concealed animosity.
Although Charlie knows an awful lot about trauma, the sobering assertion that McGrath makes here is that knowing how trauma works isn’t any help when the trauma you’re dealing with is your own.
Charlie has been traumatized. And his mother’s death is bringing it all to the surface again.
McGrath, famous for his modern Gothic style, uses it to great if restrained effect here, as Charlie’s feverish view of the city subtly reflects his own crumbling state of mind.
It’s fascinating to watch Charlie circle around his own dark truth, without being able to bring himself to close in on it. Inevitably, of course, it closes in on him.
The Twin Towers are still being built in Charlie Weir’s Manhattan, but they have already fallen by the time we meet Hans van den Broek in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Pantheon). Like Charlie, Hans is also a professional, in his case a Dutch investment banker, whose material success masks a family life in tatters.
Trauma has set this story in motion as well—this time the collective catastrophe of 9/11. In its aftermath, Han’s wife has fled back to London with their small son, and Hans is very much afraid that she’s fled the marriage as well.
Hans hasn’t been in Manhattan long and doesn’t have a wide circle of friends. (Like Charlie Weir, he may not really be capable of it.) He drifts into an unusual relationship with a larger than life immigrant from Trinidad named Chuck Ramkissoon.
Chuck has a big dream—he’s going to put cricket on the map in New York. With any luck, he’ll get Hans, another cricket enthusiast, to help him.
But the novel opens with news of Chuck’s death, and Hans has been reunited with his family in London. I was puzzled by O’Neill’s decision to give away these two major plot points right up front.
Perhaps O’Neill, who lived through 9/11 in New York himself, decided that suspense was the last thing a novel about shell-shocked Manhattan needed.
The novel works despite this choice. O’Neill, Irish born, Dutch raised and Cambridge educated, is one those ‘global souls’ of whom Pico Iyer writes so eloquently. As with McGrath, it’s refreshing to get his outsider’s close-up look at a major American city.
But he’s never going to sell us on cricket.

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