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Location, Location, Location

We were ambling alongside Regent’s Canal yesterday towards Little Venice, talking about what it would be like to live on the long narrow boats moored along its edges.

“One of the characters in my novel lives in a boat like this,” I said.

“The one you’re writing?”

“No. The Night Watch. The one I just read.” Which, by the way, means six of seven down.

One of the pleasures of reading is that it can take you places you’ve never been. On the flip side, I get a kick out of the sense of recognition found in stories set in places I know. The inhabitants of The Night Watch were often walking around the streets of Central London during World War II. It’s cool to imagine them wandering through previous incarnations of places I’m familiar with. Sometimes very familiar with … there’s a house on Bryanston Square that plays a part in the book and that’s the B2 where we used to live.

The same thing happened in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which I finished last night and very much enjoyed. The demonic robots in It's a Small World (yeah, you'll be humming that for the rest of the day, you're welcome) were right, as it seems Mr O'Neill, and his character Hans, were my neighbors.

It’s set in post-9/11 (which isn't as depressingly daunting as it always sounds) New York with a couple stops in London, and the narrator (and author as well) lives in The Chelsea Hotel, just two cross-town blocks east of our old place on 23rd Street. We lived there during the same time that the story takes place, and the protagonist comes back to London just about the same time that we moved over here, so I had a certain resonance (of residence?) with the book. The writing is beautiful (although some sentences are arguably long-winded and his wife’s rant against US involvement in Iraq seemed a bit cookie-cutter) and I felt a strong connection with the sense of almost fitting into a city full of misfits. Feeling like you belong, but not quite. It’s also a great study in how to weave flashback and memory into a story; how a sight or smell will pull a trigger that sends you back in time.

In providing a his feel for the cities, O'Neill simply gets it right. I loved his description of Manhattan during August 2003’s black out. I flew back into La Guardia that afternoon and got stuck in the resulting street party (it took me longer to get from LGA to Chelsea than it did to get from Atlanta to New York), but it was an amazing night.

There’s nothing more jarring than when a story doesn’t messes up a sense of place. It happens in movies all the time, and makes for a fun game … “Wait, how’d he get from A to B?” Someone walks out of a subway station in Soho and then all of a sudden is in Times Square. In the opening scenes of Runaway Jury, John Cusack’s character walks down the steps of the Wildlife and Fisheries Building (across the street from my old apartment), and apparently breaks the time/space continuum by ending up on the other side of the French Quarter. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, it worked for the story and fiction is, after all, fiction.

But what about when the author is trying to “say something” about recent historical events? In The Emperor’s Children two of the characters take a would-be cathartic helicopter ride over a crystal-clear lower Manhattan on the evening of September 10th. I seem to recall a fantastic storm that night, ducking under awnings to escape the pissing rain. It made 8am the next morning feel ironically fresh and clean, like the city had gotten a good power-wash. I felt like the author there was recreating history to prove her point, which (to me) seems like cheating.

O’Neill, on the other hand, always rings true. His last fond recollection of the Twin Towers comes at the end of the book. While riding the London Eye, he remembers a trip on the Staten Island ferry with his mother during an impeccably described sunset … which invoked my own memories of a week or so before 9/11, when I took my mom on a sunset Circle Line cruise around the lower half of Manhattan. Like the last page of the novel, it was sort of breathtaking.

Anyway, I’ve digressed. Bottom line: Netherland is short, sweet (well, bittersweet) and satisfying. It's not just about the cities, but about relationships and family and friendship and trying to belong. It's about trying to make things work when things get taken away.

And that can happen no matter where we live.