Joseph O'Neill: Trouble and strife

In advance of his appearance at West Cork literary festival, novelist Joseph O’Neill tells Ellie O’Byrne about his new book of short stories, and the democratic emergency in the US.

Joseph O'Neill: Trouble and strife

In advance of his appearance at West Cork literary festival, novelist Joseph O’Neill tells Ellie O’Byrne about his new book of short stories, and the democratic emergency in the US.

Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel is on hold: he’s been writing it for four years. The writer is best known for his critically acclaimed post-9/11 novel Netherland, and 2014’s Man Booker longlisted The Dog. Yet his latest work-in-progress is slow going, he says. He’s sitting in a hotel lobby in Cork, the city of his birth.

“Unfortunately, I keep writing short stories,” he says, sighing. “I keep deferring the novel I’ve been writing, because I’ve been trying to figure out how to make it responsive to the experience of people now”

Short stories — he’s about to publish a collection of 11, called Good Trouble — may be a more fitting way of capturing the current climate in a world where attention spans and leisure time have been eroded in favour of on-demand TV and social media scrolling.

Has the novel’s heyday been and gone? “The novel isn’t dead,” he says, “it’s still alive and people are still reading novels, but the cultural capital of the novelist is lessening. You can’t have that water-cooler type influence on the culture anymore.

“There are writers who are responsive to their childhood, or the 1870s, and those sorts of writers can continue to work even in these days, when the news is so amazing and all-consuming,” O’Neill says.

“But I’m very interested in modernity, and I suppose that’s why I’ve been writing short stories, because I feel like I’ve been able to hang on to my subject matter — which is 2018.”

Fertility treatments, artisan cheese production, modern facial hair trends: his characters’ preoccupations, in their 21st-century New York setting, are indeed thoroughly modern and observed with the author’s distinctively subversive, sideways-on humour.

O’Neill writes for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, where some of the stories in Good Trouble first made their appearance.

Born in Cork to an Irish father and a Turkish mother, O’Neill, 54, had a peripatetic upbringing, living in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran and the Netherlands as a child.

Having studied law at Cambridge, he put in a stint as a barrister in London. He has lived in New York for the past 20 years, where he writes, teaches at Bard College and raises his family: teenage sons and a four-year-old daughter.

Having left Cork as a toddler, he says, he doesn’t have formative connections to Ireland’s second city: he sees its changes, though.

Cork does seem to be flourishing and changing a lot. It’s much more sophisticated than it used be. But I’m always slightly euphoric when I’m here, so I’m not very good at criticising it; I have no traumas associated with it.

He looks out the window of the riverside hotel lobby: “I like it here, though, because I can see the neighbourhood where my father grew up, near St Vincent’s and Gurranabraher, the red city.”

O’Neill’s novels have been hailed for the broad sweep of their vision, their setting in a post-colonial geopolitical landscape.

It’s the world we live in: globalisation, the mass movement of people and ideas and now, O’Neill believes, a “democratic emergency” on a grand scale.

Good Trouble is, he says, as much as any of his novels have been, a body of work reflective of the political climate O’Neill finds himself living in in the US.

He’s been a contributor to several anthologies of Irish short stories but is no fan of adhering to a notion of nationality. Now having lived in the States for longer than anywhere else, though, “the stories, if they have a nationality, are American.

“Emotionally, it’s a direct response to the current sense of agitation in America and the sense of jitteriness and anxiety that the country has gone through, and that I’ve certainly gone through too. I have a US passport; I feel quite agitated and shaken up by things that are going on.”

What things? “Syria, climate change, collapsing democracy,” he says, his brow furrowed, his hand gripping his mobile phone. “Will elections work? Will democracy survive? On a local level, probably it will, but anything could happen in the November midterm.

“We have a Russian roulette system in play, The Republican party now is moving towards a sort of corrupt, degraded, semi-authoritarian version of democracy, like those you see in Eastern Europe.

“It’s not an exclusively American phenomenon: there are things happening all over the world that are related to what’s happening in the States. There’s a transformation in the world: globalisation, movement of people and movement of information, especially. Changes in culture.”

On his annual visits to Turkey, O’Neill has become involved in fundraising for a school for Syrian refugee children near his mother’s home town of Mersin. There are currently an estimated 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and O’Neill’s own maternal grandfather was a refugee to Turkey from Aleppo.

Perhaps  it’s this background that makes O’Neill so keenly aware of the scalability of the human condition, from the macrocosms of large-scale historical upheavals to the microcosms of human response.

Maybe it’s also responsible for his lack of desire to see the world in terms of nations.

When Barack Obama said, while president, that he was reading and enjoying Netherland, O’Neill later expressed discomfort at the endorsement, in light of Obama’s policy of drone strikes in the Middle East.

“When you think in terms of nations or communities, you basically take care of your own, and then you live life as though you’ve discharged your responsibilities as a human being,” he says.

“But the actual horizons have changed so dramatically. What do you do about the boy who’s washed up on the beach?

"Part of the xenophobic backlash that we’re having is, I think, a sort of traumatised response to erosion of our duty of care. Our empathy is being challenged.

“Our sense of agency is under threat. Look at the financial collapse in Ireland: even the government doesn’t seem to have a sense of agency. The outcome is not in the hands of Irish people, it’s somewhere else, in the hands of someone unaccountable, in some boardroom somewhere.”

The bigger picture can often seem bleak, but O’Neill describes himself as neither an optimist nor a pessimist. “I’m an in-denialist,” he says.

“I do feel very pessimistic about environmental issues and the physical planet, the biophysical-geo-thing that we inhabit. Pessimism and optimism are varieties of confusion, aren’t they? The confusion of despair or hope with probability. You just have to look at what’s probable.”

So against this vast backdrop, where does O’Neill see a continuing role for the novelist, then? He smiles.

“Making sentences. Making sentences is still the basic work of a novelist, but of course, that’s easier said than done.”

Joseph O’Neill appears at two events at West Cork Literary Festival in July.

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