Joseph O’Neill’s agent and publisher must hope with some fervency that he will, one of these days, write another book like Netherland (2008), his novel of émigré cricketers in post-9/11 New York. Writing in the New Yorker, James Wood called Netherland ‘exquisitely written’ and ‘a large fictional achievement’. It was the making of O’Neill’s reputation: at the time he was known, if at all, for a family memoir, Blood-Dark Track (2000); two early comic novels were out of print. Arriving as it did during Barack Obama’s campaign for the US presidency, Netherland felt thrillingly well timed. O’Neill had found a way to marry classic American realism to the postcolonial novel. Even Obama himself had praise for Netherland (this was back in those difficult-to-remember days when American presidents read books).
Naturally, there were murmurs of dissent. The book was sufficiently traditional to stand for fiction’s reactionary wing in Zadie Smith’s essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ (2008). Condemning O’Neill’s ‘lyrical Realism’, Smith instead bigged up Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), suggesting that our ‘ailing literary culture’ might benefit from