Joseph O’Neill is a very smart man and an extremely talented writer. In 2008 he garnered critical acclaim for Netherland, one of my favorite recent novels, a powerful book about loss and regaining life after the attacks on 9/11. It is a wonderful work of fiction and and a worthwhile read. I gained a deeper understanding of the book, interestingly enough, from reading O’Neill’s debut work, a much less effective novel called This is the Life. Sometimes inelegant, less polished works provide more insight into an author’s strengths and weaknesses – as well as what good fiction demands.
This is the Life is a first person account from a character names James Jones, a lawyer obsessed with the brilliance of another attorney, Michael Donovan. Donovan is a first rate legal scholar and philosopher. Jones arranges his professional life in orbit of Donovan, but after an apprenticeship he is passed over and relegated to an undistinguished firm. There, Jones toils in gray anonymity until Donovan uses his services in his divorce. The role excites Jones tremendously, allows him to glimpse other aspects of his hero, and eventually leads to a breakdown. Not much happens, all told, as the work ends with Jones very much in a similar place to where he started. What makes the book stand apart is Jones’s narration, which is acute, acerbic, twisted, and very unreliable. As trustworthy as John Dowell (of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier), Jones’s language has the precision and feeling worthy of Ian McEwan.
Why, then, is the novel not as successful? O’Neill wrote it with care, but perhaps more care and planning than integrity. Jones’s overdetermined prose and imagination are engaging, but not nearly exciting enough to pull us through nor creative enough to challenge our expectations. As a character Jones is too developed and not nearly enough real. The other characters in the novel pale in comparison, particularly as seen through the eyes of our washed out milquetoast narrator. The book lacks dramatic balance, so to speak, and as a consequence wanders.
Further, O’Neill does not really know what to do with what might be the book’s most salient characteristic – English law and the life of an English lawyer. Is is, after all, what the “life” is about – working in the law – and despite the relationships, Jones’s character and life is firmly grounded in things legal. O’Neill himself is a solicitor, or was a solicitor while writing the novel. It is possible that he wrote the book as a means of escape from his own life as a lawyer, and in so doing did not want the law to be the book’s focus. In many ways the law is at the heart of the book. O’Neill’s ambivalence with the law is the novel’s ambivalence, too, and that, ultimately, is what keeps this work of fiction from becoming serious literature.