IN an impeccably precise accent that is more Chelsea than Clonakilty, writer Joseph O’Neill says that by the time of his 2008 breakthrough novel, Netherland, all of his books were out of print.
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“And,” he says with good humour, “after 15 years of writing, I’d never met anyone who had read any of my books. I wasn’t an overnight success, and my artistic mission, so to speak, wasn’t dependent on third-party approval.”
Therein lies a salutary tale of of writing and the ‘loneliness of the long-distance’ novelist. O’Neill says that the success of Netherland was flukey. Literary merit, he wryly say, is no guarantee of great critical reception.
Other factors came into play, of course — good luck, the right reviewers, and so on.
In the case of Netherland, there was also the approval of US president, Barack Obama.
“It had everything going for it,” says O’Neill of the book that brought him out of the cold and onto the international stage. “I benefited from that special kind of recognition and good fortune in my 40s, which meant that I already had a sense of vocation and life perspective.
“As for my new book, The Dog — well, I can’t say that I was very conscious of readers waiting for it, although it turns out that some people were.”
O’Neill was born in Cork, to an Irish father and a Turkish mother, but then high-tailed it around the world, attending schools in Mozambique, Iran, Turkey and the Netherlands.
He went to college in England, and, after graduating from Cambridge University with a law degree, he worked as a barrister in London.
Come the late 1980s, he travelled to New York; he lives there now, a dual citizen of the USA and Ireland. He rarely visits Ireland, he says, but “when I think of Ireland, I automatically think of Cork, never of Dublin. When I was 18, I spent a year in Limerick, which is definitely not Cork.” Indeed. O’Neill’s new book, The Dog, was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. As also happened with Netherland (which was also longlisted for the Man Booker in 2008), The Dog failed to make the shortlist. Such occurrences are taken with a hefty bag of salt by O’Neill, who says being on any list is better than being on none.
“But definitely not as good as being on the shortlist,” he says. The Man Booker “is a good thing, but I just wish there were avenues for the kind of affirmation something like the Booker provides. There should be more than the Booker, not just for the affirmation, not to mention the financial support it provides, and the readership, but also an excitement about literature.
“That said, at least the books are out there, and that’s a very good thing. It concerns me that kids aren’t being exposed to books these days as much as they were when I was growing up.”
Before The Dog and Netherland, O’Neill pent years chipping away at an impenetrable, metaphoric block, behind which lay acclaim, commercial success and a creative way forward.
The way he tells it sounds like a novel in waiting. “I had moved to New York,” he says, “and I had, pretty much, given up my legal career, which, to me, felt like a massive gamble. In other words, I was betting on surviving through my writing. I wrote my first books while I was a barrister in London, before I went to America, but, at this point, I think it should be stated that I’m nowhere near as creatively austere as all that. I wish I could say that I was so hugely self-contained in my artistic resolve, but I can’t — you can do a few books for a decade, but you need to have someone telling you that you’re not wasting your time.
“The books were reviewed, which was great, but, quite literally, I have never heard anyone outside of my family and friends say they’d read them. I felt I had it in me to write something, but that I’d never given it a proper chance. With Netherland, I felt I had,” he says.
Described by the New York Times Book
Review as “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell”, Netherland might not have made it onto the Man Booker shortlist, but in 2009 it won both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award.
Not bad going for a novel that, throughout 2007, had been rejected by a rake of major New York-based publishers.
O’Neill’s latest book — written in the commercial afterglow of Netherland, as well as during his separation and eventual divorce from Sally Singer, a high-profile magazine editor — is essentially a tale of exile and displacement.
The book’s primary character, an unnamed New York lawyer living in Dubai, where he cooks the books for a wealthy, if financially dubious, Lebanese family, finds himself in all manner of ambiguous situations. Part Franz Kafka, part Ian McEwan, The Dog is imbued with fanciful, stray sub-plots that are anchored by beautiful writing and an intuitive ear for language and dialogue. Some people aren’t convinced, however — a New York Times reviewer said that O’Neill’s writing was “overcooked”.
Ever polite, O’Neill doesn’t bristle at what could be construed as a criticism. “Yes, I read that review,” he says evenly, neither dismissive nor agreeable. “The style of narrative is certainly not me, although I can’t deny that it came out of me! Many authors write in a voice, create a verbal landscape, which they don’t inhabit in their lives. The creation of a verbal landscape interests me, and, in fiction, I think you’re wasting the medium to do ordinary things within it.”
Topics touched upon in The Dog include the compulsion to remain connected with people online. The lawyer — traumatised by guilt and other issues, including the sundering of a relationship, which may or may not reference the author’s private life — has friends, but what exactly is a ‘friend’ in the context of online connectivity? “I think we’re at a point where ancient notions of friendship and communication have been radically disturbed,” says O’Neill, “and we’re still waiting for it to play out. People of my age — I’m 50 — grew up in a world where we had a habit of reading.
“I remember that my childhood wasn’t catered for by the entertainment industry. There were movies on television, of course — Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and so on — but aside from that it was books.”
A second, all-pervasive topic that O’Neill writes of is Dubai itself — he paints a picture of it that is equally appealing and unattractive.
“It’s great if you like air-conditioned shopping,” he says, as dry as Dubai sand.
And what about the sub-plots — they don’t really go anywhere, do they? Again, a thoroughly unruffled O’Neill takes such nit-picking in his stride. Resolutions, he implies, aren’t everything. “Well, they do go somewhere, but they don’t follow the usual arc. I’m always slightly disappointed by plots. We know full well there is only one plot in life, we know what happens in the end, and so the rest of our life is sub-plots. The Dog is not about accepting formats, it’s about disturbing them.”
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