Joseph O'Neill has won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for his widely praised novel "Netherland." Set in New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the book has drawn repeated comparisons to "The Great Gatsby" while managing to overcome American readers' indifference to cricket, the game around which much of its narrative is built.
"No better mind has gone to work on where we are post-9/11," said Lee Abbott, one of three writers who served as PEN/Faulkner judges. As for cricket, Abbott said, he has never watched a game, but "I'd love to see one in O'Neill's company — and he makes me feel that I did."
O'Neill, 45, is an Irish-born immigrant who sought out New York's cricket subculture when he arrived there in 1998. After a couple of seasons competing with cricket-loving immigrants from South Asia, the West Indies and elsewhere, he said in an interview, he realized there was "a story to be written about this marginalized and emblematically invisible world."
In addition to the winner, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation named four finalists:
- Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum for "Ms. Hempel Chronicles," a novel- in-stories about a middle school teacher "navigating the final passage to her own adulthood," as the Christian Science Monitor's reviewer described it, "even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence."
- Susan Choi for "A Person of Interest," which draws on the story of the Unabomber and which Washington Post critic Ron Charles called "one of the most remarkable novels to have emerged from our age of terror."
- Richard Price for "Lush Life," a novel the Boston Globe's reviewer said explored "the collision between the old and new Lower East Sides ..."
- Ron Rash for his novel "Serena," set in the Depression-era logging camps of North Carolina. Rash is a PEN/Faulkner finalist for the second year in a row. He was honored for "Chemistry and Other Stories" in 2008.
The winner will receive $15,000 and the finalists will receive $5,000 each. All five authors will be honored at a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 9.
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The protagonist of "Netherland" is a Dutchman named Hans who has moved with his English wife to New York — where, like his creator, he soon finds himself immersed in the cricket scene. There, he befriends an enigmatic Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon who dreams of establishing the sport in America. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Hans' wife and beloved toddler son return to London, imperiling an already troubled marriage.
Within the first three pages, the reader learns what will happen both to Chuck and to Hans' marriage. But as novelist Siri Hustvedt pointed out in her Washington Post review, " 'Netherland' doesn't turn on plot. In both form and content, it questions the idea that life can be told as a coherent story."
O'Neill himself, like most serious novelists, is reluctant to "stamp a certain interpretation" on his work. But the way globalization has reshaped the experience of immigration is clearly part of what he intended "Netherland" to evoke.
"Immigration is now particularly subject to flux," he said, "because of the way information moves around the world." The immigrant narrative used to center on "a fateful separation from your home." Now not only can you go home again, political circumstances permitting, but "you can find out about your village" on the Internet.