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Netherland

February 16, 2010

I’ll admit it: this book ended up on my reading list like everyone else because I saw the President was a fan. This was back during the heady days of Hope when Obama could still turn water to wine.

Which is not to say it is a bad book. In fact, like Obama himself, it is a fine, upstanding, ambitious book, that is a little underwhelming when it comes to delivering results. The choice of narrator poses a fundamental problem to the writer and reader: he is a dull, passive figure who does not so much participate in the narrative as to act as a foil to other, more dynamic characters, and to serve as an archetype for the disaffected, moneyed, complacent Westerner of the new century.

In spite of the extremes of tediousness to which the author exposes his readership, the novel actually has some poignant things to say on the themes of cultural displacement, the power of dreams, family and heritage, and personal relationships. But then there are the false notes that ring out from time to time, the allegedly inspiring speeches that don’t even rise to Hollywood standards, and overall too much telling, not enough showing.

In spite of its shortcomings, I came away feeling that somehow O’Neill has captured a collective state of mind with a fair degree of skill and accuracy. There is a sense these days that we are faced with events and circumstances over which we are able to exert little control. No wonder Obama appreciated this book.

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