The other night in the pub, R started to discourse on lines. “There are no lines in nature,” he said. “There are edges, but no lines.” So, anywhere you see a line, you see meaning; you see an indication of intelligent creation, purpose even.”
The more we discussed it the more we saw in the subject. There are thin lines and thick, straight lines and curved – even squiggly and zig-zag. Then there are the architectural lines. Lines that intersect and create angles (do two curved lines intersecting create an angle? If so how would you measure it?) – three or more intersecting lines create spaces. Can lines be infinitely long? Surely not. Infinity is beyond the ability of a line-maker. There is only the possibility of infiniteness. Lovely story of how a child is counting past infinity, “Infinity-one, infinity two, infinity three…”
There are the intentional lines of poetry and the often random lines of prose (dependent on typeface and font size for their positioning). There are the punitive lines of school: “Do 100 lines”. And then there are the hard lines of luck. I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone say “Hard lines” for a while.
And then there are all those virtual lines, metaphorical lines: time lines, story lines.
I was reminded of this discussion when I read Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. (“Mesmerising” according to Jeremy Paxman; ‘An exquisitely written novel,” according to the New Yorker magazine). The Netherland of the title is a play on the fact that the protagonist is Dutch and he finds himself not so much exploring (too intentional) but accidentally exposed to a ‘below world’ – so this is also Netherland as in Nether Wallop.
The novel starts promisingly. Hans is a rich money man in New York, early thirties – so rich and sexy. He discovers a world of Caribbean cricket and joins it. He becomes very pally with the captain who has big schemes (wants to build a cricket stadium in New York). Meanwhile his wife leaves him and returns to London.
I was interested in the idea of a cricket culture in New York, and that is what the story appeared to promise. But something odd happened on the way. What I took to be back story seemed to take over and bullied the main story out of the way (or so it seemed to me) and then an incidental fore-story also muscled in and we had two fringe stories competing cannabilistically, devouring the narrative meat. And the promising foreground of cricket in New York disappeared. And in any case how was it a money man had so much time on his hands and why did he choose to live in such a dump of a hotel?
There was an odd sense of the story being half real – particularly at the beginning. I had to check several times that I was reading a novel rather than a memoir. To a certain extent that should be taken as a sign of very good writing but as we saw in the discussion of lines, reality is formless, fiction has form. There was a very odd merging here between the formless and the formed. I got a bit queasy.
In the end I didn’t really care about the protagonist, or about his silly wife or about his criminal best pal. And I was sad because there had been something there in the beginning that had got lost. ( “A brilliant, haunting novel’ said the Daily Telegraph. “Beautifully written,” according to Monica Ali.) Ah well, Joseph, you can’t win them all. I’m just sad that the one you didn’t win was me.