Joseph O’Neill, Careful With His Words

The Telegraph has a wide-ranging interview with Netherland author Joseph O’Neill, in which he expounds on his disappointment with not receiving a Man Booker nomination (“I can honestly say I wasn’t that disappointed although the sales would have been nice”), and delivers a slight dig against his semi-peers in American fiction (the “cupboard is slightly bare when it comes to American writers under the age of 65.”). He also explains why it took him so long to write the novel:

One of the reasons that Netherland took seven years to write is that its author spent ages poring and re-poring over each sentence. In a previous interview, he said he was unsure about the book until he came up with the phrase “invertebrate time”, which, he said, even Shakespeare would have used. “Oh for God’s sake, did I say that?” He looks mortified as perhaps he should. “But you do take pleasure from the word combinations, and that was probably one of them. You know what I was driving at there – the mixing of the metaphors … it’s very Elizabethan.”

But perhaps O’Neill wasn’t quite as careful with those words as he says. Harper’s critic Wyatt Mason brings up an interesting exchange he had with a novelist about Netherland regarding the finery of the book’s prose. Mason’s friend calls shenanigans on this passage:

Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel.

A discussion of the definition and proper usage of “firmament” ensues, and it’s worth reading the whole thing instead of summarizing it. Mason writes that he’ll pick up the conversation again today; it should make for an interesting close reading, something that doesn’t happen often enough online.

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