Thursday 23 January 2020

Book reviews: Adrift in a crazy world with Joseph O'Neill

Fiction: The Dog by Joseph O'Neill, Fourth Estate, tpbk, 242 pages, €14.99

The Dog by Joseph O'Neill
Joseph O'Neill

John Spain

Books Editor John Spain on the long-awaited second novel from 'Netherland' author and Obama favourite Joseph O'Neill.

Early in his first term of office, when he was still the epitome of cool instead of the befuddled president he has become, Barack Obama mentioned in an interview that he was reading a book by a then little known writer called Joseph O'Neill. It was, according to Obama, "an excellent novel."

That book, Netherland, became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and not only because of the presidential seal of approval. Obama was right. O'Neill is an extraordinarily gifted writer, the most interesting Irish novelist at work today.

He is our only truly international writer, exploring contemporary subjects that have global resonance in books that brim with breathtaking but always carefully modulated prose. Unlike, say, the overly embroidered novels of Colum McCann or the nostalgia tinged recent books of Colm Tóibín or even John Banville, O'Neill's writing reflects the individual's concerns in our desolate modern world in prose that is illuminating, amusing, sometimes beautiful, but never showy. It's different and, once you get used to it, it's a joy to read.

His new novel, The Dog, is one of the 13 books that have just been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. It's the favourite and it deserves to win, which probably means it won't. But all those readers who loved Netherland (longlisted for the Booker in 2008 when it should have won) and who have been waiting for O'Neill's next novel ever since, will love this one as well.

It is in some ways similar to Netherland, which was set in New York in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers. That book was hailed by the New York Times among others as by far the best post-9/11 novel, even though it did not deal directly with the outrage at all.

It told the story of a young Dutch banker in Manhattan whose English wife goes back to London after 9/11, their failing marriage further undermined by that awful event. He goes to live in the Chelsea Hotel where he stays for a couple of years and becomes involved with a variety of eccentric immigrants in New York through a mutual interest in cricket.

It sounds odd, but in a way that's the point. That book was all about identity, belonging and alienation and the prevailing sense of sadness and futility not just in New York after 9/11 but in today's world in general, the anxious netherland we all live in.

It's that sense of the conflicted and confused individual in the globalised world that O'Neill is a master at getting across. Likewise the difficulty for the individual in making moral choices in everyday life in this disconnected world (despite all our screens). His new novel again explores this theme with the same perceptiveness and wry humour.

The Dog, like Netherland, begins with a young man whose relationship and self-esteem have collapsed and who is looking for something to give him a fresh start. He's a lawyer in New York in 2007 and by chance bumps into someone he knew years before in college, a guy who is part of the enormously wealthy Bartros family from Beirut and who offers him a job in Dubai as the overseer of their huge fortune.

Our anti-hero (also our narrator) takes the job and finds that he has very little to do, apart from monitor emails about how the many companies within the Bartros group and the family members are shifting their vast wealth about. He's not expected to do anything, except keep an eye out for anyone trying to rip them off.

Which leaves an inordinate amount of time in his gleaming apartment for pondering about the absurdities of life in Dubai and the behaviour of the expats with whom he interacts, all of whom earn big salaries like him and fight off the ennui in various unpleasant ways.

He's a worrier, constantly questioning and analysing his own actions and those of everyone around him. He tries to assuage his conscience by giving money to charity, paying his regular prostitutes well (but not too well because that might be misinterpreted) and being concerned about the armies of third world construction workers in Dubai (a couple of whom jump from buildings in despair everyday - he first notices this when an unexplained shadow flits past a window).

Like someone with mental OCD, he agonises endlessly over all kinds of decisions, big and small, trying to act in a way that does not offend his own sense of morality. And then he analyses whether he is analysing too much.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be tiresome. But O'Neill is supremely insightful and intelligent. The logic of his anti-hero's internal arguing is endlessly fascinating and his observations are often very funny. And it helps that you can open the book anywhere and find sparkling sentences that perfectly describe what is momentarily in focus.

He discovers at one point that the prestigious high-rise blocks where he lives have been renamed Tampax Towers by the other ex-pats because of the number of Emirates cabin crew living there. "How clearly I remember my first exposure to this superior polyglot race, which is how these ethnically elusive women with smiling creaseless faces first struck me. They seemed indigenous to the skies," the narrator observes.

His meeting with George, the Bartros patriarch, "on his fuck-off yacht", is hilarious. George, who is naked, is having his hair shampooed by his female assistant ('une lesbienne' George whispers) but carries on the meeting as though this is normal. "Gratuitous domestic nudity is prevalent among the rich and famous as a kind of very authoritative informality," O'Neill's narrator says.

The artificiality and absurdity of Dubai and of its ex-pats and upper-class locals are mercilessly exposed in this novel, although it could be about many places in the world rather than this suspect Shangri-la. But it's really a wider commentary on mankind's moral progress, or lack of it.

The real pleasure of the novel is in the endless asides on moral dilemmas rather than the plot. Not much happens, although a Bartros grandson and a missing scuba diver add mystery. And, without revealing too much, things don't turn out well for our anti-hero. He never manages to shake his feeling of being in a permanent doghouse.

There are a couple of incidental Irish references along the way, reflecting the author's roots. Old George's wife is from Mullingar(!) and the university where our hero met one of the Bartros sons years earlier was in Dublin.

But although O'Neill was born in Cork in 1964, he is half Turkish and after an international schooling, a degree from Cambridge and a decade as a business lawyer in London, he now lives in New York, so it's not surprising that his novels are more international that traditionally Irish. But we should lay claim to him for as long as we can because his work is original and brilliant.

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