‘X’ is in ‘the Situation’: Joseph O’Neill, author of the clever and superb Netherland, hereby lets us know that his new novel is a riff on Kafka’s The Castle. Kafka’s ‘K’ has become X, struggling for recognition by his lover, by his employer, by the world.
The Situation is a residential block in Dubai (desert sand for Kafka’s snow). X is a corporate lawyer who has been invited there by an old college friend, a dodgy Lebanese billionaire, to handle the family’s personal financial affairs. The burdens of this job constitute the first of the three threads that bind the novel together.
The second is the story of X’s relationship and break up with his high-powered girlfriend, Jenn, of whom he is terrified. She is one of the reasons he has fled New York.
The third is the matter of Ted Wilson, a legendary diver, who has gone missing. X’s obsession with the diver suggests envy. For X, diving offers ‘the effect of limiting what might be termed the biographical import of life’. For an existential angst has contributed to X’s need to escape the real world and relocate in the fata morgana of Dubai: ‘The accumulation of experience amounts simply to extra weight.’
X is morally fastidious, but there is something decidedly creepy about his stalking of the Situation’s service staff in order to force on them generous tips. He is by turns suspicious, cautious, guilt-ridden, opportunistic, flip (he loves to refer us to scenes in movies: Butch Cassidy, Lawrence of Arabia, Dumb and Dumber) and although intelligent, he is unattractive, not least because he doesn’t seem to like or indeed know himself. He describes himself as ‘happy-go-lucky’; he is anything but.
The reason we stay with him is that, as in Kafka, the satire is often absurdly funny. Writing in a kind of conversational legalese, decidedly latinate (to the extent of making up words, such as ‘infuriation’), hiccoughing with multiple parentheses, X is subject to the tyranny of reason or perhaps simply overzealous lawbook learning. Occasionally there are lapses into the demotic, often in the form of emails to his obdurate employers, which X composes in his head but never sends. The funniest, and most terrible, scene in the book details the break up of his relationship with Jenn.
X has a Candide-like naivety, often expressed through his need to be over- specific. Lentils (which play a violent part in the drama) are not merely lentils. They are Umbrian lentils. He has a Tom Wolfe-ish love for brand names: ‘Dionisi Ottomanelli was there in his Jaguar XJ220, as was the Ferrari F430 of Jesper and Ingrid Poulsen. Keith Botha’s Bentley Arnage T was unmistakeable.’ Through association with a number of high-class prostitutes, he has become ‘quite curious’ about post-Soviet states, and can place on his map ‘Bishkek and Yerevan and Perm and Poltava and Ternopil.’
These assignations are at a complex called the Unique, where he uses a pseudonym: ‘G. Pardew is merely my Unique name’. Clever stuff.